Precarious job security is not confined to the third world
Here’s an offer too good to refuse. Start work at 6.30 – if you’re lucky – with no idea how many minimum-wage hours you’ll work.
You are there because your employer last night sent out a text message telling you there was a shift available. Every night you wait for your text to tell you if you’ll be working the next day or not.
You know that even if you ask for something simple, like a couple of days off for the birth of your child, there’s a solid chance your job won’t be there for you when you return.
Even though you’ve worked for the same company for more than five years, they owe you nothing when it comes to security.
This is not an anecdote from the Great Depression but a daily reality for workers at a computer packing company in suburban Sydney.
These working conditions are sadly more commonplace than you might think. And while the reaction of many is to say: “well go and find yourself another job”, the truth is that for many people – whether new migrants with poor English, people without skills or qualifications, or who fear they’ll be passed over because they’re too old – work simply isn’t that easy to come by.
What’s to say the next job will be any more secure anyway?
We’re seeing a rapid rise in Australia in what is known as precarious work. It’s now at the point where about half of all working Australians do not have permanent, full-time employment. They might be working as contractors or part-time or as casuals.
Some, especially the highly skilled and sought-after, might prefer this way of work. But for many, it’s just a tough reality to deal with.
Part-timers often have to work two or three jobs to earn a decent living and many want to work more hours. Contractors usually have to pay their own superannuation, workers compensation, and do not have employee entitlements.
Casuals do not have access to paid holidays, paid sick leave or many other entitlements that permanent employees receive. The extra pay loading they get does not come close to compensating them for what they miss out on.
Australia has one of the highest rates of casual work in the world - two million people are employed this way.
In years past, this style of work was a steppingstone to something better, but increasingly that’s not the case.
Casual jobs are becoming permanent, without becoming permanent jobs.
Which is why it’s now the time to have a national discussion about what kind of workforce and society we want for this century.
Do we want to continue heading down the path of the United States, where you can work for the same company for a decade and never receive employee benefits?
Do we want, like the US, a social level of non-English speaking migrants, who, instead of participating in the national way of life, work under third world conditions within our borders?
For business, there are clear long-term benefits in having a satisfied, secure and permanent workforce. Secure workers can deliver higher productivity and loyalty that often outweighs the small cost saving from casualisation.
Unfortunately, with CEOs currently so focused on annual results, the short-term cost saving involved with casualising a workforce is often hard to pass up.
The union view is that work is such an integral part of life that people should have a level of security over their jobs and their incomes. If you have been doing the same job, with the same weekly hours for more than a year, why shouldn’t you be able to become a permanent employee with paid annual leave, sick leave and all the rest?
What’s clear is, in a booming economy, with profits and executive salaries at record levels, we can afford it without impeding economic growth.
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