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The paradox of work over the festive season

Retail frenzy is a familiar feature of the festive season – but what about all the casual workers who labour through it? AAP Image/NEWZULU/PAUL THOMPSON

_Yet the workers’ rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at the maximisation of profits. _Pope John Paul II, On Human Work, 1981.

Written more than 20 years ago, the above statement still reflects the working life for many of us, particularly in the summer Christmas season. Many casual workers find this season fraught with problems. For some, there will be an increase in work and income as retailers respond to shopping frenzies by hiring more staff.

This comes with a cost to workers and families, making Christmas a stressed work experience and denying the need for leisure.

For others, Christmas sees a downward trend in employment. Retailers experiencing lower than expected profits see no responsibility to a casual work-force, and minimise shifts. We as a community have a responsibility to these workers.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference noted in 2002 that “work is the key to a just society”. Approximately 2.2 million Australians are employed on a casual basis – that’s one in five workers. If you include freelancers and contractors, then 35% of the workforce can be classified as casually employed.

We must serve justice in considering the experiences of casual workers – particularly over the summer holidays and the festive season.

This means thinking about how to balance workers’ rights and preferences with the needs of business? We can look at rostering, for example. Casual shifts, offered at short notice, necessitate re-organisation of child care and family commitments. Forethought in rostering shifts would respect the dignity of casual workers.

A common fear expressed by casual workers is that refusal of a shift may mean that they are seen as unreliable, therefore being offered less shifts in the future.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) aptly describes the paradox under which casual workers live – they receive more money per hour but the uncertainty of shifts makes it hard to budget. They enjoy extra work over Christmas, yet suffer insecurity dependant on the economy. They experience flexibility with an alleged ability to “work when they want” – but refusal of shifts may jeopardise further work opportunities.

Do they put work first, and family or leisure second? And at what cost to relationships, to health, to our communities and thus our society?

In acknowledging the insecurity of casual workers, governments, employers and unions can work to provide safeguards for workers. Is there a way to protect their dignity? Uniting Care suggests looking at awards and encouraging workers to bargain collectively. Casual workers can become an empowered collective force rather standing as lone individuals.

It may not all be bad news. The latest report from the Melbourne Institute indicates that job satisfaction for casual workers is not significantly different than it is for those in permanent employment.

Research notes that casual workers value work-life balance, including the flexibility and opportunity of summer holiday work: the chance to work when they want with the possibility of earning higher pay. Furthermore, summer holiday casual work was valued by younger workers as an opportunity to learn new skills.

Summer casual work = choices

So, the choice is there for us as a community to continue the discussion on summer casual work. Do casual workers have choice, or do some feel forced to take on work over the holidays?

University students are one example. Some pundits advise them to gain casual work over the summer break to improve future employment prospects in a competitive world. Yet, when do these students have time to refresh, and to read ahead for academic success?

The paradox of summer casual work lies in choice.

If we have choices, in being able to work, and in securing or refusing shifts, then a work-life balance is achievable. Higher earnings may offset lack of leisure. Alternatively, a temporary reduction in income, with a dearth of casual work, is palatable given our choice to engage in relaxation, making family a priority for some of the season. A change for university students may be mentally refreshing, provided they, too, have choices in when to work and when to schedule relaxation.

The Catholic Church in Australia has continued to call attention to the dignity and rights of workers. We can all call attention to the dignity of casual work in our discussions, increasing awareness of our needs and desires in bargaining collectively. The needs of the work-place can be balanced with the needs of workers over the festive season.

See also: We’re all going on a summer holiday – well, some of us …

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