Labour in vain: casualisation presents a precarious future for workers

Casual workers can often feel as though they are being treated as a commodity by their employers. katiemarinascott

Welcome to the Future of Work, a series from The Conversation that looks at the ongoing evolution of the workplace. Today, Monash University’s Veronica Sheen examines the consequences of the increasing casualisation of Australia’s workforce.

Casual jobs are part of the employment landscape, providing income earning and work experience opportunities in transitional periods such as during student years or perhaps starting out in an occupation with a view to permanency. For some, casual jobs may also be a lifestyle preference, such as one writer for the Age, who “only wanted to work casually for a long while” to fit with her family and other priorities, (presumably in the context of a sufficient income from other sources).

For many people, however, casual jobs are the only jobs they can find and are neither transitional nor a lifestyle preference. Comprising around 2.2 million or one in five of all workers in Australia, “casuals” represent a sizable proportion of the labour force.

The ABS defines a casual job as a job without paid leave entitlements, but the essence of a casual job is that the worker is entirely expendable on an hour-to-hour, week-to-week, year-to-year basis. If that casual job is the prime source of income then there is a major challenge in holding your life together, as Eliza, a woman in her 50s working in a call centre, explained to me:

“Casual is very unsettling and uncertain. Often I’ve been told, ‘Oh, the shift has now been cancelled’ so I’ve been called at the last to be told that. I’ll think I’ll have some shifts and some income coming in and that’s taken away from me - and it’s as if the rug has been pulled out from under your feet. So suddenly you don’t have the focus of work and you don’t have the income coming in … it can change in the blink of an eye.”

Various commentators argue that most casual jobs are not really insecure at all. In questioning the findings of the ACTU insecure jobs inquiry, Judith Sloan argues that “if jobs had become more insecure, we would expect to observe shorter average job tenures - and we simply do not”. Similarly, Ian McAuley points to the very high level of stability in the workforce with the vast majority of people expecting to be in the same job in 12 months time according to current ABS surveys.

However, these contentions are both simplistic and outdated. It may have been true that there was a very strong interface between casual work and unemployment or other status such as “in education”, in the past. Most commonly, casual staff would be employed to cover busy periods in the business cycle and then laid off. This means that their job tenure would be short term and the worker would return to being unemployed or perhaps to being a full time student. But now, the business model in many industries is such that casual (and fixed-term contract) workers are an integral part of ongoing workforce arrangements and not just a supplement to a permanent workforce in busy periods. Therefore, about 43% of casuals in 2011 had been with the same employer for between one and five years, around the same proportion who had been with the same employer for less than one year.

The proportion of casuals is very high across certain industry sectors, such as retail and accommodation/food services. However, it is also significant in areas where it would be less expected. For example, casuals now make up about 40% of the workforce in universities, according to the National Tertiary Education Union.

The increased prominence of casuals across diverse industries may help to explain the very high rates of underemployment in the current labour market. As of February 2012, over 900,000 Australian workers had insufficient work (531,500 women and 384,800 men) comprising around 8% of the workforce (in addition to an unemployment rate of around 5%).

Casuals may be kept on over long periods and constitute an integral part of workforce structures, but it does not mean that this is a satisfactory arrangement for workers themselves. They may not be in much danger of losing their jobs as they might have in the past at the end of a busy period when they were simply laid off. But they are still used instrumentally and strategically by employers in ways that permanent employees are not. Eliza’s last minute cancelled shifts in a call centre is an example of this.

Portrait of a casual worker

The dynamic of how casual work can masquerade as employment stability is illustrated by Patricia who had been working for eighteen months prior to interview as a wards clerk in a hospital in an outer suburb of Melbourne. After 12 months as a casual, she attained permanent part-time status for one day per week. However, she was still on call as a casual to work another two or three days per week, although there was always variability in days and hours of work. Patricia’s “permanent” one day per week also was not a set day, but subject to an ever-changing calendar of shift allocation. These arrangements reduced her options for taking on a second job to improve her income as well as any other routine activities in her life.

The one day per week permanency meant that the hospital could effectively tether its casual workforce through provision of a minimal level of security and occupational benefits while keeping its liabilities for these benefits to the bare bone. Casual rates are also cheaper for weekend work and nights than overtime rates for permanent workers. Speaking of her experience of being employed as a casual, Patricia said:

“There is no training, no one talk to. You are not considered part of a team and there is no sense of being part of a team – just called to work as to how you can be useful. Very perfunctory.”

Her story echoes the type of segregation in workplaces reported by the National Union of Workers, where casuals from labour hire companies wear barcoded armbands to distinguish them from permanent employees. Rather than a casual job being a route to social inclusion as government hyperbole is keen to promote, it can just as likely be a route to social exclusion.

Why do workers put up with it?

From my research, two factors stand out. A significant number stayed in casual jobs because it had not been very easy to find a job in the first place. This wasn’t because they lacked skills and qualifications but simply because of a lot of competition for available jobs. Then they “learned” the job and became accustomed to the workplace. Terri, another call centre worker, sums up the situation:

“I was working for [a bank] on contract doing accounts and when that ended, I went on websites and applied for so many jobs. I managed to get that job and it was call centre work. This is the sort of job I probably would have done when I was 20 years old and I felt I wouldn’t last that long. Then a year, two years come and go, and I am thinking: ‘Well OK, I could be here for as long as probably’. When a person starts a job, you’re trained; after that you know everything. With me, after two and half years, I knew everything about the job and I didn’t like to go and search for another job. I would have to go through the interview process and train again.”

We might take from this situation that Terri enjoyed a level of employment stability, but we might also conclude that she had become entrapped in a long-term casual job that was below her skill level and without basic employment rights and protections. At the time of interview, she had recently lost the call centre job after three years, as the work had been “offshored” to the Philippines and India. She describes the brutal finishing-up process:

“I turned up for work one day. I turned up for my normal hours but they told me, ‘Sorry, but we meant to tell you the day before that you have no job’. So that was it - after close to three years.”

Employment insecurity now pervades many workplaces and industry sectors especially in the service sector but also in areas such as manufacturing and warehousing. The ACTU estimates that around 40% of jobs are insecure mainly as casual and fixed term contract. So workers make accommodations to the reality of what they can get to earn a basic living but that doesn’t mean it is an easy or desirable set of choices. Like Terri - even if you keep the job for a few years - you can turn up for work one day to find that your job no longer exists. And there are no leave entitlements or redundancy packages to soften the blow.

*Names and identifying details of interviewees have been changed.