More than 2 million Australian casual workers have had their wages protected after a tribunal decision to maintain a minimum three-hour call out in the retail sector.

The challenge is now there for Liberal leader Tony Abbott to rule out scrapping basic standards in awards, such as a minimum start, says the ACTU.

Unions welcome today’s decision by Fair Work Australia to reject an application from retail employers to vary the Modern Retail Award by reducing the minimum start.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence said the minimum call-out was an essential safety net condition to ensure all casual workers were paid a decent wage.

“Today’s decision has confirmed the importance of the award safety net that is in place to protect all workers,” Mr Lawrence said.

“Losing a guarantee of minimum hours of work would have put at risk the income and job security of 2.5 million Australian workers who are employed casually. A minimum call of three hours exists in many awards, and ensures that people are not called in for short shifts.

“Minimum hours are an important safety net condition for all workers and act in awards like a minimum rate of pay. Young workers in the retail sector are paid as little as $8.89 an hour under the Modern Retail Award and it is not a major cost for employers to allow them minimum hours.

“If employers want more flexibility, particularly for their junior staff, they should be looking at negotiating enterprise agreements with their employees. Instead, they are using it as an excuse to undermine all workers’ rights in the retail industry.

“These conditions were designed to protect people such as working mothers, who have costs including travel and childcare to think of and it is unreasonable to expect them to attend a shift for as little as half an hour, especially at short notice. Under WorkChoices, employers particularly in the retail sector used individual contracts to strip away conditions such as minimum hours.”

ACTU President Ged Kearney said Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had backed the right of employers to dictate hours without any regard to a safety net, and he should now change his position. Mr Abbott said on radio (3AW Neil Mitchell Show, 17 February 2010) that he would scrap the requirement for casuals to be paid for a minimum shift and that he couldn’t guarantee other basic employment standards would not be axed.

“The Liberals have already had one go at destroying the award safety net system – that was called WorkChoices,” Ms Kearney said.

“Mr Abbott has a preference for individual contracts over awards or collective agreements and given the chance would abolish awards all together. Working Australians cannot afford the risk of going back to WorkChoices.”