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


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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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