More Australians than ever can only find casual or non-permanent jobs that don't offer any security. Are they what the economy needs or are they just being ripped off? Clay Lucas reports.
IT HAS been one hell of a year for Kathy Carra, and and she is wondering how it's going to get better. In the past 12 months the 40-year-old Epping woman has had 40 jobs, mostly via recruitment and labour hire agencies she is registered with.
The longest lasted five months, the shortest just four hours. She usually earns about $16 to $20 an hour, working in manufacturing plants or warehousing. And, like millions of Australians stuck on a treadmill of low and fluctuating wages, no paid leave, and uncertain and unpredictable hours, her work is anything but secure.
Every day, Carra trawls the employment websites or a labour hire agency sends her to a job interview. She never questions the employment conditions offered. "If you question it, the answer is, 'If you don't like it, there's the door'," she says.
Carra has been in jobs where she is paid less than colleagues doing the same work. At one large retail centre, it was $16 an hour, working through a labour hire firm. Permanent employees doing identical work were paid $28. "The minute I raised that with my manager, I was dismissed," she says.
Carra has some training, but each attempt at returning to school for more has failed, because she says she must be available for work to meet payments on the house she bought when she was 23.
It wasn't like this for Carra's mother, who migrated from Greece in the 1960s. "She worked for Scallywags making socks. She had her job for 35 years. She barely spoke English, and yet she had stability and sick leave and union support if it was needed."
But the way Australians work has changed dramatically since then. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the journal Social Indicators Research, since 1984 casual employment in Australia has grown from 15 per cent of the workforce to 25 per cent.
Similarly, fixed-term contractors have grown to make up 4 per cent of the economy. Add to this the explosion in "independent contractors", who now make up 10 per cent of workers many technically working for themselves but in reality dependent on a single client and the number of people in non-permanent jobs is about 40 per cent of the workforce.
That accounts for 4 million Australians, making us something of a world leader in developing a casualised workforce. By 2002, according to the OECD, only Spain had more casual workers than Australia's then 27 per cent (this has since fallen to about 25 per cent).
Employers argue the flexibility provided by increased casualisation and contract work has given a major boost to the Australian economy since the 1980s, sending productivity upwards and creating more work for everyone.
And in many cases mothers who want to only work a few days, students who need only a few hours while they study for example they argue it has allowed workers who don't want full-time jobs to stay in the workforce.
Stephen Smith, director of workplace relations at the Australian Industry Group, in a recent paper on job flexibility, says casual and part-time work levels are little changed from a decade ago, but what change there has been has helped many employees better meet family responsibilities, or make lifestyle choices that suit both them and their employers.
And as the employment cycle has slowed occasionally over the past few decades, flexible working conditions have enabled many people who would have lost their jobs to at least stay in the workforce.
"The community needs flexibility to achieve economic growth, high levels of employment and increased workforce participation," says Smith.
Unions, however, say the change to more casual, part-time and contract jobs has profound implications for the quality of working life for all Australians.
Globally, the phenomenon of so many people living a precarious life of social and economic uncertainty, often coupled with extreme debt, has led to the coining of a new phrase to describe this rising, anxious class: the "precariat".
Guy Standing is a professor of economic security at Britain's Bath University. His 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class outlined his case for why an increasingly insecure workforce poses a threat to social stability.
Standing says that for some highly specialised workers, insecure employment will be a huge windfall, as they move from lucrative project to lucrative project. But he also says having more young and relatively well-educated people pushed into insecure jobs if they have jobs at all that provide little prospect of building a meaningful career could lead to growing intolerance, stress, and a breakdown of social cohesion and community.
"It is too easy for politicians and commentators to say that everybody should be more flexible in the labour market, and more employable all the time," says Standing.
He says the increase in employment that lacks security has helped fuel the growth of various forms of extremism, as "the precariat" loses faith in conventional centre-left and centre-right political parties and agendas. He points to the drift to the far right in Europe and the United States, with former working-class people being lured by populist sirens playing on the fears of an anxious and insecure workforce.
Last year, picking up on its own research, which mirrored much of the phenomenon outlined in Standing's book, the ACTU launched a nationwide inquiry into insecure employment. Led by former deputy prime minister Brian Howe, it took submissions from workers, community organisations, academics and unions. (Employers were invited to take part, but only a few made submissions.)
ACTU president Ged Kearney says over the past three decades, as casualisation and contract work have flourished, unions have individually tried to address the loss of permanent jobs, but without much success.
"We see it as a concerted effort by corporations to really shift all the risk of employing people, and all the costs of employing people, onto the individual. They say it's in the interests of flexibility, but really it's in the interests of profitability and keeping costs down," she says.
Kearney says young people are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the change in employment practices. "Younger workers say, 'Well what can you do about it? All my friends are employed like this this is the way of the world'," says Kearney.
"There is a sense that there is nothing we can do about this, and this is our life, and we are caught in this cycle. [We are] trying to say there is a great deal we can do about this if we do it collectively."
Since the mid-1980s, according to a submission to the ACTU's inquiry by the Foundation for Young Australians, more than twice as many young adults have taken part-time jobs. "Many are seeking full-time work," the foundation says, "but have to make do with part-time or casual jobs."
Until she recently won a scholarship to study for her PhD in psychology at Melbourne University, Frances Lewis was a prime example of this sector of the workforce. The 29-year-old had worked a variety of casual jobs since leaving high school, some with set rosters, some not.
Much of her work was in a call centre, cold calling people and asking them to complete surveys. "I would get the email on the Friday evening about 5 or 6pm, and I wouldn't know if I was working on the Monday until then," says Lewis.
This was, she says, much better than the experience of others she knew working in call centres, who would only be told if they had a 4pm shift at 11 o'clock each morning. But such relatively short notice made it difficult to plan her life.
In mid-2011, when she had depended on call-centre work to pay for a holiday she had booked, suddenly it dried up. "I'd actually bought a ticket to Europe on the basis that . . . I'd work six days and save up money before I went back to uni. And then I was basically living on the dole." She said it made her aware of what employers meant when they talk about the need for flexibility.
"It's flexibility for the employer and putting the risk back onto us they can have us lined up if they need us. But then there is no reverse responsibility from them."
For the many who have had bad experiences working in insecure roles, though, there are many who work part time because it suits them well. Russell Zimmerman, Australian Retailers Association executive director, says part-time work suited many retail employees. "Mothers who want to be with their children after school. People who want to maybe work a couple of days a week. University students with set sort of hours. If you can offer them part-time employment for their needs . . . they know they have the regular income coming in," he says.
Zimmerman stresses that many retailers still need the flexibility of a casual workforce, to accommodate the seasonal surge in sales, but there is also a need for regular part-time employment for many. "Access to sick hours and holiday pay, that's a very important part of it ensuring that you . . . have that time off [when] you need it," Zimmerman says.
Ged Kearney believes, however, that none of the large employer bodies have accepted that the casualisation of work is a major problem. "They all say that it is necessary for a global and flexible economy."
She says unions are not mounting an argument for a return to one-job-for-life as if it was the 1960s.
"We understand that a casual part of the workforce is important for flexibility and for the peaks and troughs in the economic cycle. But when you look at the statistics that nobody disputes 40 per cent of workforce is now in some form of insecure work you can't tell me that that is in response to the economic cycle."
She says the answer could be building better safety nets into casual and contract positions that include sick leave, better superannuation and health and safety training.
Many disagree that the rise of casual and contract labour has been damaging. John Lloyd is the former Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and is now with the Institute of Public Affairs.
Today the institute, a free-market think tank, will release a report attacking the ACTU's campaign on insecure employment, which he says has vastly overstated the negative aspects of non-permanent work, while failing to acknowledge its benefits.
The flexibility increased casualisation and contract work has provided has been an incredible boost to the Australian economy, he says, creating more work for everyone and in many cases allowing workers who don't want full-time jobs to stay in the workforce.
Lloyd argues that the ACTU campaign, by lumping contracting and labour-hire arrangements in the same basket as casual and fixed-term employment and labelling them "insecure", delegitimises all work other than permanent, full-time jobs within regular business hours.
"This is not appropriate for a modern economy," he says. "Insisting that employment relationships consistent with 1960s labour market and broader economic landscapes are still the ideal in the modern economy is short-sighted."
He also says many businesses small to medium-size in particular can no longer afford to train workers to perform work peripheral to their core business. Contracting out functions such as IT management and administrative services enables these firms to be more efficient.
If Australia does not accept capital and labour are mobile, he says, inflexible working practices here will simply lead to work being sent offshore.
And Lloyd does not believe that everyone is unhappy about the new world of flexible work. "For younger workers, casual employment is a pathway into the workforce, and is often undertaken concurrently with study."
ATELLING example of the casualisation of Australia's workforce is Coles. Until three years ago, about 70 per cent of the supermarket chain's staff were casual and it was haemorrhaging people, losing experience and forsaking training. When Wesfarmers took it over in 2008, its store development and operations director, Stuart Machin, made it a priority to turn that situation around.
Today less than 30 per cent of the chain's store-based staff are casual and it has halved staff turnover, with 26 per cent of staff now leaving each year, a level that is standard for the industry.
The ABS says the casualisation of the workforce has had an impact across all sectors, particularly industries facing seasonal variations in labour requirements such as agriculture, forestry and fishing, and accommodation and food services.
Over the past 30 years, nowhere has the increase in casual and contract work been as noted as in academia. Robyn May is a PhD candidate at Griffith University, studying the casualisation of academic work. Ironically, she also has a casual job tutoring in industrial relations at RMIT.
May says her own research and that of others on casual workers generally, outside the university sphere, shows they have higher rates of workplace injury, and are more vulnerable to sexual harassment. "Our whole system is falling apart because the nature of the work protection system hasn't kept up with the changing nature of work."