Instead of showing leadership, the federal government is doing every thing it can to encourage the unfettered growth of casual jobs in Australia says ACTU Secretary Sharan Burrow.

August 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of the Of the Hawke Government’s Sexual Discrimination Act.

When that historic piece of law was introduced in 1984 average weekly earnings for women were less than 70% of those for men.

Two of three women workers were clustered in clerical, sales and service jobs.

Outside of hairdressing women made up only 2% of all apprentices.

Despite their critical role in the workforce women were discriminated against and marginalised.

When the legislation was introduced Liberal Senator Noel Crichton Brown declared that,

the role of the legislation was to:

‘destroy the structure, fabric and intrinsic role of the family unit…’

‘Many married women… [He said] … undertake certain family duties … which they believe are best undertaken by a wife and mother. They are also perfectly happy and, in their minds, they believe they are perfectly equal.’

Current Queensland Senator Ron Boswell thought the outlawing of sexual discrimination amounted to plot originating in ‘the eastern [European] Soviet bloc countries’

The family and our western style market economy under threat.

So what happened?

The number of Australian women in the workforce has almost doubled.

Ordinary time earnings for full time women increased for women to 84% of those of men,

Still an unacceptable and un-just gap but better than that which existed in 1984 and has us well placed to tackle a new round of this battle – the value associated with women’s work.

There are now more women workers in all occupations and professions including positions of influence.

More than half of all the people employed in professional occupational categories are women.

Again we still have a long way to go – only 25% of managers are women and less than 9% of board positions in Australian companies are held by women.

However the economy did not collapse and there is no serious arguments opposing women’s rights to equality.

Far from economic devastation the Hawke and Keating Governments laid the foundations for what has been one of the longest sustained periods of economic growth in Australia’s history.

Business did not suffer.

They tapped into a great reservoir of talent and energy and intellect.

So why is this relevant to our discussions today?

Well firstly because it highlights the hysteria and misinformation that surrounds these type of discussions about improving the rights of marginalised members of our society or our workforce.

The opponents of equity and opportunity will always predict that the sky will fall in – but it rarely if ever does.

Second, it highlights the importance of rights and laws and leadership on these type of issues.

Without the commitment of the Hawke Government the gains we have made would not have been realised.

On issues of equity it is up to Government’s must set the tone and to lead. It is not acceptable that one in three women are engaged as casual workers, are paid 21% less than permanent workers and that they have no access to holiday leave, sick leave or public holidays.

And thirdly, it is my view, and the statistics and the stories in Barbara Pocock’s work back it up. The proliferation of casual and insecure employment is one of the most important issues of gender equity in the Australian workforce.

A large proportion of casual workers are women

Despite the increase in the number of women entering the workforce, in most cases it is still women who shoulder the bulk of the burden of caring for Australia’s children and for that matter homes.

This means many women, particularly those with children, need part time work.

But what part time work in Australia means is casual work.

More than 80% of women who work as casuals work part time.

No holidays, no sick leave, and only as a result of the ACTU’ Work and Family Test Case have these workers recently achieved the right to take a day or two off, with-out pay mind you, to care for a sick child without having their employment threatened.

For too many Australian women casual employment is the price they are made to pay for working part time.

This is a factor of the unavailability of part time permanent jobs that would allow women to transition through the periods of their life where their care commitments are heaviest without having to sacrifice their connection with the permanent workforce.

More permanent part time jobs are needed to accommodate people with caring responsibilities.

Cultural factors are also important here.

Australia has an all or nothing workplace culture. Our workplaces were designed for men, by men and still largely revolve around their traditional life patterns. Outside of the few exemplary workplaces like Auto-Liv workers are all too often forced to leave their caring responsibililties at the door.

Even relatively positive casual workers like Donna from Barbara’s research who has young children and has worked for two and a half years as a part time casual receptionist, says she would feel guilty as a permanent if she had to take a day off to care for a child.

The price Donna – and thousands of women like her – pays for a lack of workplace flexibility is casual work.

We need to crack this culture – flexibility can work for both employers and employees.

Is this the sort of society we want where Donna and Donna alone bares all the risk and all the cost for caring for a sick child?

To address these issues we need a concerted effort – government, employers and unions to improve the opportunities in Australia for quality part time work.

This is one of the reasons that in the up-coming ACTU Work and Family Test Case unions will be seeking to establish a right for people returning from parental leave to request part time work.

Unions do not believe that having a baby should mean a woman has to start her career all over again – often in casual work.

Working mothers should be able to maintain their connection with the workforce and contribute to the extent of their skills, experience and capacity.

That would be real flexibility.

We will also seek to establish a right for workers to make reasonable requests for changes in their working hours to meet care responsibilities – including the right to request part time work.

All of these claims are appropriately qualified so that the interests of businesses are fairly balanced with those of employees.

Such arrangements will not threaten jobs or harm productivity.

Like arrangements have been in place in the UK for some time now.

The importance of leadership

I want to close by talking about the issue of leadership.

The truth is that this federal government is doing every thing it can to encourage the unfettered growth of casual jobs in Australia.

In eight years in office the Howard Government has not done a single thing to help a casual worker get a chance at a permanent job.

It took leadership from the Hawke Government to tackle the unresolved business of sex discrimination. This is unfinished business.

Casual work is not just a matter for the market; it is a matter for the society.

We will need Government to show sensible leadership on the issue.

Shouldn’t the right of Australian workers to some decent and secure connection with their job and their place of work be an objective of all Governments’?

We need to look at ways to build better rights for casual workers.

We need to work with business address their concerns and create better incentives to encourage them to employ permanent workers – good for the economy and good for working Australians.

We are not making the most of what the Australian workforce has to offer, of what it can achieve if almost a third of workers are ‘only a casual’. Generations to come will not thank us for handing them a world of work based on precarious employment. If then no Australian wants their children to be subjected to insecure casual work for long periods of time then in Australia’s interest business and government must work with us to turn this around.

Speech to ACTU, The Age & RMIT Casual & Insecure Employment
Sharan Burrow – ACTU President
2 August, 2004

More Information

Fact Sheet on Casual Work

Only A Casual: How Casual Work Affects Employees, Households and Communities in Australia – this study reports on the experience of 55 casual workers and their attitudes towards casual work, be it positive, ambivalent or reluctant. Download the Executive Summary (PDF) or the Full Report (PDF).

Casual Work and Casualisation – How Does Australia Compare? – a report by Prof Iain Campbell, Centre for Applied Research which explores international comparisons, centring on the pivotal issue of the peculiarity of casualisation in Australia.

Paradoxes of Significance – Australian Casualistion and Labour Productivity – a report by Dr John Buchanan, Deputy Director of Research, acirrt, University of Sydney, looks at the economic significance of casualisation.