Personal relationships lasting years aren’t regarded as casual and neither should long term employment relationships says ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

This Conference is about one of the most fundamental changes in the Australian labour market in the last decade or so.

Perhaps in its history.

It’s about the seismic shift in the way employees are engaged in their employment.

Since 1990 casual employees have gone from just under 20 per cent of the workforce to 28 per cent in August 2003.

But the discussion about the growth of casual employment is not a mere historical examination.

It is in a very real sense about Australia’s future.

The future of our labour market, our future economic performance and the nature of our society.

Whether we want to see a labour market where one in three (or perhaps more) of all employees have no access to leave entitlements, are discriminated against in their access to things like housing finance and no matter how long their service are fundamentally insecure in their jobs.

It’s about whether we want to take a low road approach to the economic and competitive challenges facing the Australian economy.

An approach which will involve more casualisation, de-skilling, poor training and ultimately poor productivity.

Or whether we want to take the high road.

The high skills, high training, high job security approach that values employees and that finds our place in the world through the positive advantages of better skills and better products and better services.

It’s about whether we want a labour market and a society which is fundamentally divided and unequal.

Or one which is united and provides opportunity for all to participate in economic and social life.

Unions support the proper use of casual employment but they oppose its abuse. Unions will continue to play their part in the ensuring strong economic growth, strong jobs growth and improvements in productivity but we will always reject the low road solution.

Australia’s future lies not in a petty cost cutting approach to the labour market but rather in the serious investments required in training and skills to provide Australia with the productivity and competitiveness it needs to go forward.

Economic change

The story of the last 20 years is one of economic change.

Currency and financial deregulation, the discipline exacted by competition in a whole range of markets and the move to workplace bargaining have produced impressive economic results.

For the past 10 years or so Australia’s GDP growth has averaged nearly 4 per cent a year outstripping the US, the G7, European Union and OECD averages and adding $200 billion to the economy in real terms.

More than 1.8 million jobs have been created with employment growing at an average of 2.2 per cent per year compared to an OECD average of 1.1 per cent. Productivity growth has averaged 2 per cent a year for more than 10 years now, an unparalleled long term average in the Australian economy.

Inflation has remained low at an average of 2.5 per cent a year and the highest interest rate we’ve had since 1993 has been 7.5 per cent.

Company profits have grown an average of 13.5 per cent year on year for the past decade to increase by 233 per cent in real terms.

Earnings have also lifted by about 4.2 per cent a year and Australia has moved ahead of the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Sweden in terms of income per capita.

This is a great performance that has seen Australia withstand serious economic external shocks.

Impact in the workplace

But we need to recognise that some of the changes of the last decade or so have not been good for Australia and some of them pose a risk to Australia’s future prosperity and productivity.

Under this government, inequality has grown dramatically.

In many workplaces economic change has meant reduced staffing levels, higher workloads, longer hours, employment insecurity, lost entitlements and more pressure on family life.

The key characteristic of change has been the transfer of many of the risks associated with a more competitive business environment from government and business to employees.

Casual employment

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the rapid growth of casual employment.

There are now 2.3 million workers in the Australian labour market who have no entitlement to paid holiday leave or paid sick leave.

One in three of all the net jobs created in the period of the Howard government have been casual with more than 40 per cent of all full time jobs in that period casual.

Unions are not opposed to casual employment.

We accept that casual employment is an appropriate way to deal with short-term and irregular fluctuations in labour demand but most casuals simply aren’t engaged on a short-term or irregular basis.

54.4 per cent of casuals (that’s more than 1.2 million workers) have been in their current job for more than a year and 5 per cent (110,000 plus workers) are still casual having been in their employment for more than 10 years.

ABS data shows that three quarters of all casuals still expect to be with their current employer or business in 12 months time and that the same proportion work to some form of fixed roster.

The fact is that most casual employment just isn’t casual.

My best friend is not a casual acquaintance.

My wife and I are not having a casual fling and an employee who is regularly engaged on a long-term basis is not casual either.

It is this aspect of the phenomenon of the growth of casual employment which concerns unions most.

In the last ten years average job duration has not changed.

The explosion of casual employment is then simply the wholesale conversion of jobs which are regular and ongoing from permanent status to casual status.

At the current rate 1 in 3, perhaps more, of all jobs will end up being casual.

We need to ask ourselves is this the kind of labour market we want.

Is this the kind of society we want where millions of workers are denied paid leave entitlements and the basic incidents of job security.

Employer groups and the Commonwealth often argue that the growth in casual employment is something that employees themselves prefer.

Part of a new found preference for flexibility in their hours of work and the like. There is no doubt that some casuals, predominantly full-time students, do prefer to be casual employees.

But as Borland, Gregory and Sheehan have noted in their book Work Rich, Work Poor: Inequality and Economic Change in Australia it is simply not plausible to characterise the recent explosion in casual employment as being driven by the preferences of employees.

The recent Job Futures Survey tells us that a majority of casuals would prefer permanent full-time or part-time work.

ABS data tells us that whilst 28 per cent of employees are casual only 7.1 per cent indicate that their preferred working hours arrangement is “casual or relief work”.

In an anecdotal sense Barbara Pocock’s work overwhelmingly confirms this.

For most casuals the flexibility of casual employment is a myth.

The reality is the unpredictable nature of working hours, days and income, the need to be on tap and the feeling of marginalisation.

George’s story

For many workers casual work is like quicksand – once you are stuck in it it is almost impossible to get out of.

One of the case studies in Barbara’s work is a fellow called George.

George is 40 years old, married and has three kids.

He is a skilled technician and works for a very large, very profitable domestic and export manufacturer.

He has worked in the same workplace, for the same employer, doing the same job for 13 years – as a casual.

His hours fluctuate.

His salary fluctuates by as much as $12,000 a year.

He has never had a paid sick day.

And has never had a holiday with his 13 year old son because he is on call all the time and can’t afford to knock back a shift.

After 13 years he is still not included in staff picnic days or Christmas do’s.

He is not included.

George has received training from his employer in skills specific to the enterprise.

He is an integral part of the business in every respect except his employment status.

‘I watch people go on holidays, I hear about their holidays when they come home from their holidays, I see them in the same position with their sick pay and if I’m ever sick I’ve got to go to work absolutely dying because I know if I don’t make it to work I’ll lose a days pay and when you’ve got commitments – as I say, I’ve got three children …- you just can’t afford to take time off.”

George’s confidence is shot and he feels stuck – he is a ghettoed casual.

“I’m just an everyday Joe that wants a five day a week job’

“You feel… it’s hard. You always just feel like a fill in, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, even after 10 years. And you know, I’m not the only one there that feels like this. Sometimes I feel like a dirty dishrag where I’ve just been wiped… you know. Because it’s downgrading, its depressing. I mean there’s times where I just sit there and just put my hands in my chin and just think what the hell does this all mean, you know. I mean.. you just have a feeling of no, you just have no belonging, no sense of belonging to anywhere, you’re just in limbo.”

The insecurity for casual work drives insecure workplace citizenship.

And not just for casual workers.

When almost one in three working in the workplace is casual every body’s security is undermined.

Communication suffers.

Permanent workers are affected when a growing number of their casual workmates have little access to training, feel disrespected and can not speak up.

Casualisation casts a shadow over the whole workforce.

Effects on employers

Casual employment though does not just have a negative impact on employees. ABS data shows that whilst 71 per cent of permanent employees with more than a year’s service have received some training in the previous 12 months.

The proportion of casuals in the same position is only 45.3 per cent.

Indeed this problem is so universally acknowledged that even the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry accept that there is a training problem in relation to casual employment.

This is a critical issue for future skills development and consequently Australia’s future productivity.

Casualisation represents the petty cost cutting approach to the labour market, it is not consistent with a high skills, high productivity approach for which unions contend and which represents Australia’s best chance of making its way in an increasingly internationally competitive world.

What needs to be done

We need to tackle the issues related to casualisation.

Doing nothing is not an option.

It needs to be accepted that it’s not in anyone’s interests, not employees, nor unions nor employers nor governments for a huge chunk of the Australian labour market to be working in regular long-term jobs but ostensibly described as casual.

We need to reorient the way the labour market works so that casual employment returns to its original purpose, that of providing employers with a capacity to meet genuine short-term and irregular or intermittent fluctuations in labour demand. Unions have placed the issue of permanency of employment clearly and squarely on the bargaining agenda but this will always only be a partial solution.

Employers and governments need to actively embrace strategies which promote permanent employment and steps need to be taken within the award system to ensure that casualisation and the deskilling it brings is not allowed to take further hold on the Australian labour market.

In the year 2000 the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union ran a high profile case regarding casual employment in the manufacturing industry.

As a result of that case a right to convert from casual to permanent status was included in the key Metal Industry Award.

With the passage of nearly 4 years since the decision in the Metal Industry Casuals Case the time has perhaps come to review whether the outcomes of that case have had any significant impact on casualisation in that industry and if not, why not.

Our preliminary view having researched the impact of the Metal Industry Casuals Case is that more robust intervention will be required in the award system in favour of permanent employment if something is to be done about the ongoing trend towards casualisation.

The choice for which unions contend is the choice between a labour market which is founded on security as opposed to one where there is substantial insecurity.

It is not a choice between growth and no growth, indeed on the available evidence ongoing casualisation represents a likely inhibitor to continued improvement in productivity.

It is not a choice between flexibility and rigidity.

Unions support and accept the use of casual employment where employers have a genuine need to meet short-term and irregular fluctuations in labour demand.

It is ultimately a choice between fairness and increasing inequality, between the high road of a highly skilled and productive workforce and the low road of petty cost cutting and insecurity.

In the end it is not really a choice at all.