Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Can unions Stop the spread of casual work?

Lisbeth Latham

During the past two decades, the number of Australian workers employed as casual workers has grown dramatically. More than 2 million workers — or a quarter of the workforce — are now employed on a casual basis.

“Casual employees offered cheaper labour costs, they offered greater ease of dismissal, they offered the opportunity to match labour time to fluctuations in demand, they offered greater administrative convenience, and they offered a greater opportunity for enhanced control of employees”, Dr Ian Campbell, a lecturer at RMIT, explained in a submission to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC).

While casual employment may be good for company profits, it increases work stress and uncertainty for workers, and exacerbates income inequality. According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) Future Strategies report, during the 1990s almost three out of every four jobs created were casual or part-time. Eighty per cent of the jobs created paid less than $26,000 a year. This lowering of income partly reflects that most casual workers are part-time, but a hefty 39% of casuals are full-time workers.

Casual employment is not, as many believe, used mainly as a temporary stop gap. Tony Abbott, the federal workplace relations minister, told parliament on June 23 that the majority of casual workers have worked for the same employer for the last 12 months and have regular patterns of work.

The federal government, and employer organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group, justify the increasing casualisation of work with the claim that a “flexible” work force will ensure business competitiveness.

This just means that denying workers’ holiday and sick leave means bigger profits. In the NSW TAFE system, for example, there are more than 15,000 casual part-time staff. According to July 4 episode of the ABC’s Stateline program, casual “part-time” teachers working full-time hours earn approximately 30% less than their full-time colleagues employed on permanent basis.

The growth in casual employment also undermines conditions for permanent workers, who are driven to become more “flexible” in order to compete. In the stevedoring industry, for example, the current P&O agreement creates a new form of work — “permanent irregular”. While they have a guaranteed annual income, these workers will not have a roster. Instead, like current casuals, their shifts will be irregular and impossible to plan around.

A large number of different employment conditions makes it harder to develop solidarity in a workplace. It’s easier for bosses to play the different groups against each other.

There have been a variety of different responses to casualisation from its opponents. Unions have tried to improve conditions for casual workers, limit the spread of casual conditions and ensure casual workers can move into permanent positions relatively quickly.

To achieve this, unions have pursued clauses in enterprise agreements and rulings in the AIRC that limit the proportion of a work force that is casual, limit the amount of time a worker can be employed casually and make casual workers more costly to employers.

Casual employment conditionsIn 1999, the metal division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union applied for a variation in the metal and engineering award, in order to improve the working conditions of casuals. The AMWU wanted to increase the casual loading to 30% and establish a minimum daily hiring period (“engagement”) for workers.

Casual loading compensates casual workers for their exclusion from award benefits such as sick and annual leave. The union estimated that anything less than 30% meant casuals would be worse off than permanent workers.

One of the worst pitfalls of casual work is the lack of certain income. The daily minimum engagement was designed to limit this, and ensure that workers knew they would be paid enough to offset the costs of going to work, such as transport and childcare. The AMWU applied for a minimum engagement of six hours, and a maximum of one engagement per day.

While the AIRC accepted the AMWU’s arguments, it granted an increase in loading to 25%, and a minimum engagement of four hours, with workers able to be engaged more than once a day.
Despite the short-fall, this case provides a basis to argue for such changes for all casuals. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is attempting to use the decision as a precedent to win a 25% casual loading as part of its national pattern bargaining campaign for new industrial agreements. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) has also won an increase in the casual loading to 25% for horticultural workers and shearers.

An alternative approach is being followed by the New South Wales Teachers Federation. In a claim going before the industrial relations commission in September, the federation is asking for casual part-time TAFE teachers to receive pro-rata conditions such as holiday and personal leave. The claim is for staff who work eight or more hours a week, and will affect 5200 teachers in New South Wales.

Limiting casual employment
In the 1999 metal and engineering case, the AMWU unsuccessfully attempted to ensure casual employees were only employed to meet short-term work needs, in emergency circumstances, or to perform work unable to be practicably rostered to permanent employees. The union wanted to ensure that permanent employment remained the standard form of employment.

The NSW Public Service Association (PSA) won an alternative limit on casual employment in the libraries of the Illawarra TAFE Institute during 2001. The institute's management had attempted to reduce permanent employment by replacing retiring permanent workers with contract casual labour. Through a persistent industrial campaign, the PSA's members were able to win a 5% cap on the proportion of workers that could be employed as casuals.

Converting casual to permanent employmentDuring 1999 and 2000, three landmark award decisions gave casuals the right to transfer to permanent employment after a period of time. These were the graphic design award, the South Australian clerks award and the metal and engineering awards.

On the graphic design award, the AIRC ruled in 1999 that after 12 weeks, casual workers would automatically switch to permanent employment. This could be extended, if the worker, union and employer agreed, by a further 12 weeks — if the work was ceasing during that time.

In a 1999 case before the South Australian industrial relations commission, workers covered by the clerks’ award were given the right to “voluntary conversion” after 12 months, although this could be extended to two years. Under voluntary conversion, workers must apply to be made permanent, and can be refused if “reasonable grounds” are given.

In the 1999 metal and engineering award case, the AMWU applied for automatic conversion to permanent employment after four weeks, extendable to eight weeks. However the AIRC ruled that in order maintain “employer flexibility”, voluntary conversion would apply after six months, extendable to a year.

The AMWU wanted a shorter pre-conversion period in order to discourage bosses from laying off workers instead of making them permanent, then hiring new casuals. The shorter the period, the more often bosses would have to hire and train workers in order to keep rotating casuals.

Since these decisions, conversion rights have been inserted in a number of awards. In May 2003, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU) won voluntary conversion after 12 months for workers in the hospitality industry. Casual horticultural workers in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria now have voluntary conversion after 12 months. The NTEU is also seeking conversion rights after 12 months in its pattern agreement.

According to Professor Barbara Pocock from the Centre for Labour Research at Adelaide University, voluntary conversion provisions have had limited success. “This is not surprising when you look at the workers who are in casual employment, and the precarious circumstances of their employment”, she told Green Left Weekly. “There are two reasons for this low uptake. Firstly, any casual worker applying to their employer to [be made] permanent is sticking [his or her] head out, so it would take a very brave person to do so. Secondly, most casual workers are on low wages, so the move towards permanent employment means a 20% cut in take home income that they cannot afford”. Pocock's research indicates that many casual workers underestimate the risks of casual work, which has no sick leave.

Pocock argues that casual work should be “strictly limited to truly temporary work, and any work that extends this should automatically convert to permanent employment. This would allow workers to factor into their budgets the move to permanency and would eliminate an abuse of the industrial relations system”.

The AIRC might be unwilling to allow short-term, automatic conversion to permanent employment, but the Victorian AMWU has shown it is not impossible to win it. In the branch’s metal division Campaign 2003, the model agreement includes automatic conversion from casual to permanent employment after 12 weeks. Through militant industrial action, this has already been won at a number of work sites.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #547


Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Solomons: Troops should not go

By Chris Latham

In the lead-up to PM John Howard's announcement that Australia would send troops to the Solomon Islands, the mainstream media was filled with the lurid descriptions of violent criminal gangs terrorising the Solomons' population, and warned of the dangers of the tiny country becoming a terrorist breeding ground. Perhaps unable to see past this propaganda, Australia's parliamentary opposition parties have accepted the need for an intervention, restricting themselves to debating the best framework for implementing it.

It is unfortunate that there is no parliamentary party outright opposing the intervention, as Howard is likely to use it as an opportunity to initiate a more active role through which to assert Australian big business dominance within the South Pacific.

The ALP quickly indicated it was keen to get “bipartisan” support for the intervention. In a statement issued on June 30, Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, explained that the party's support for the operation would be based on it meeting three criteria: “An invitation from the Solomon Islands government; consensus among the Pacific Islands Forum countries; and an appropriate force composition for this policing action, together with well-defined exit conditions.”

The latter condition is unlikely to be an issue, the second was met on June 30, and the first is likely to be met on July 8. Instead of challenging the intervention, Labor has attempted to “score points” by disagreeing with foreign minister Alexander Downer's argument that the intervention shows that national “sovereignty is not absolute”.

On June 27, Rudd stated that with the “intervention into the Solomon Islands, the question of sovereignty does not arise because the intervention is to be based specifically on the request of a sovereign government in a matter of domestic security”. Rudd's concern is that, if Canberra openly disregards national sovereignty, the same arguments may be used by “great powers within our region against Australia's sovereign interests in the future”.

The Greens have expressed concern at the Australian government intervening in the Solomon Islands without the support of the United Nations. Greens senator Bob Brown was quoted in the June 27 Sydney Morning Herald saying: “Australia risks being seen as a mini-imperial outfit in the South Pacific. That is not something that Australia wants to do.”

However, UN endorsement of Canberra's military intervention would not alter the Solomons' neo-colonial relationship with Australia.

The Solomon Islands, like the rest of the South Pacific island nations, are heavily dependent on Australian aid and trade. In 2001, according to the CIA's World Fact File, the Solomons' government budget revenue as A$58 million — Canberra's aid allocation to the country for 2003-04 was $37.1 million.

According to an AID/Watch June 13 briefing paper, Solomon Islands: Should Australia send a peace keeping force, this aid is contingent on Solomon Islands' commitment and progress in restoring law and order and improving economic management. This is reflected in the growth in governance building to 22% of Australia's aid program, including $17 million over the past four years to Kerry Packer's GRM International to increase the capacity of the Royal Solomon Islands Police.

In sending troops, Canberra intends to make the islands safe for Australian big business investment. A UN-endorsed intervention, which would still be led by Australian troops, would have the same aim, and would reinforce the same dependent relations.

The government and a number of media commentators are tripping over themselves to distance the deployment from the label of colonialism. But that is exactly what it is — and why it must be completely opposed.

Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific's Iggy Kim told Green Left Weekly: “Howard and Downer know that there is a strong opposition, both within Australian and the Asia-Pacific region, to Canberra's economic domination and exploitation of its neighbours. So they're trying to sell the intervention as a `rescue' of the Solomon Islands. We need to be clear — Australia already dominates and exploits the Solomon Islands government. What is changing is that Australia is moving from indirect domination towards direct colonial domination, through controlling the arms and the economy.”

This may not stop at the Solomons. In an address to the Sydney Institute on July 1, Howard commented that the Solomon Islands was “not the only country in the region” that is “at risk of failing”.

Further Australian interference in the islands is unlikely to help — the dependent economic relationship is part of the problem. AID/Watch's Tim O'Connor explained to Green Left Weekly that the communal tension is a direct result of the Australian aid program that is “developing a dual economy between the elites who have access to aid money and the benefits that flow from it such as education and health, and those that do not”.

This is exacerbated when the key objective of Australian aid is to increase the exports of Australian companies. This aid, O'Connor argues, “acts as a boomerang, with an estimated 70% of Australia's aid being tied to specific Australian companies”. This makes the practice of giving aid “simply an elaborate form of corporate welfare. The Australian aid program to the Solomon Islands should be focused primarily on alleviating poverty. This would promote sustainable development and attack the problem of internal conflict directly by addressing the urgent needs of the people”.

From Green Left Weekly issue #545


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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