Part-time and casual work, contracting out and working at home, are the issues coming to the forefront of the trade union agenda in this and many other countries says ACTU President, Jennie George.

I am honoured to address this conference, in the presence of many of my sister trade unionists from all over the globe. It is through events like this that we come to understand that many of the challenges which face us in Australia are common to working women throughout the developed and the developing world.


The globalisation of the economy has meant the globalisation of the labour market, where employers are able to search on an international scale for the cheapest and most subservient workforce.


The issues on your agenda for the next two days – part-time and casual work, contracting out and working at home, are the issues coming to the forefront of the trade union agenda in this and many other countries.


One of the ACTU’s first priorities in the next few years is our campaign around working hours and job security, which our members, men as well as women, are telling us is of more concern than wage increases.


Issues to do with rights for part-time and casual workers have been a major interest of those interested in workplace equality for women, because of the inextricable link between working hours and women’s ability to participate in paid work. Some, more cynical than me, might say that it is only when our male comrades realised that workplace change was drastically affecting men in traditionally full-time and secure employment that they recognised the issues as a priority.


We are no longer talking only about young women working in supermarkets or hotel bars, or cleaners and canteen workers whose jobs were contracted out to service companies. With the massive shift to contracting out of “non-core” activities such as maintenance, transport and communications, men are joining women in the ranks of the precariously employed.


Only 30 per cent of workers in this country work a standard 35 to 40 hour working week, with one in four full-time workers reporting that they are unhappy with their working hours, wanting either more or fewer.


It is obvious that we have a massive distortion in distribution of work. On one hand, Australia has more than 750,000 unemployed workers, with another half a million part-timers who want to work more hours. On the other hand, over 30 per cent work overtime, with two thirds doing so without receiving extra pay. Australia has the second largest group of workers in OECD countries (after the UK) working 45 hours per week or more.


One in four workers is employed on a casual basis, with half of these seeking permanent status. The proportion of casual and contract work is growing every year. One in three women are employed as casuals, and one in five men, with the proportion of the latter increasing rapidly in industries such as manufacturing, building and construction and mining. Three quarters of part-time workers are female.


Australia also has the highest rate of temporary employment amongst the OECD countries, with one fifth of enterprises using agency workers, and 35 per cent outsourcing some functions. The shift towards fundamentally insecure employment has been presented by employers and the current Government as desirable in the interests of workers as well as the employers. The proponents of these developments argue that greater flexibility is required for businesses to become more productive and competitive, but is also in the interests of workers, particularly women, to enable them to combine paid work with their family responsibilities.


There is, of course, some truth in the proposition that part-time work is sought by women who also have the care of young children. The ACTU supports measures which give women the ability to choose employment patterns to enable a better balance between paid and unpaid work.


This is occurring to some degree, particularly for those women who possess skills and experience which are valued by their employers. For the vast majority of women, however, I fear that their ability to achieve this balance is being eroded, not improved.


Unfortunately, the direction of the current Australian Government’s industrial relations policy is towards stripping workers of any choice or control over their working lives. Those most affected are the sectors with the least bargaining power, amongst whom women are disproportionately represented.


Let me tell you about some of the developments here in the last three years, since the election of the Howard Government.



  • Legislation has been enacted prohibiting the setting of minimum or maximum hours for part-time workers or for limiting the number of part-time or casual workers in an enterprise. This means that employers can change workers’ hours with minimal notice, depending on their day to day business needs. Part-time hours are not required to bear any relationship to basic financial needs.




  • Contracting out or privatisation of many public functions has forced workers into unemployment, or into insecure, often casual employment with contractors.




  • Although the recent maritime dispute involved few female workers, the message sent by Government support for the employer was that it is acceptable to manipulate corporate structures in order to dismiss workers and deny them their legal entitlements, or to force them to work in inferior conditions.




  • Introduction of a system of individual employment agreements (called Australian Workplace Agreements, or AWAs) which enable employers to demand complete flexibility of hours of work as a precondition to employment. Women seeking employment in the retail, hospitality or clerical industries are generally in a poor position to resist pressure to sign such agreements.




  • The Government continues to try to have legislation passed by the Parliament which will deny employees of small business and workers in their first year of service from any remedy if dismissed unfairly by their employer.




  • The Government’s is planning to change superannuation arrangements to give employers greater power over the fund used for workers’ retirement savings, as well as to exclude part-timers and casuals earning less than $900 per month from the universal system. In the hospitality industry, for example, up to half of all female members of the superannuation fund would lose their entitlement.



In the last few weeks the Workplace Relations Minister has revealed plans to introduce even greater flexibility into the so-called “agreement-making” process, by allowing for wages and conditions very significantly lower than those which apply under awards made by the Industrial Relations Commission. They would allow a retail worker, for example, currently entitled to around $435 per week, plus extra for working nights and weekends, to be employed for $373.40 per week, with no additional compensation for work outside normal hours or for overtime.


So, at the same time as we see an explosion in non-standard work, we have a concerted campaign to cut workers’ monetary compensation for working the rosters required by their employers.


What do these changes mean in practice?



  • They mean a retail worker travelling for an hour to get to her casual job, and then sent home after two hours because business is slack.




  • They mean a hotel room attendant required to complete a set number of rooms, irrespective of the state of cleanliness of the rooms. This often means she works past her set hours, but receives no additional pay.




  • They mean the young teacher who loves her job but is employed on a six month contract. This is the fourth contract she has had in two years, and the stress is causing her to consider leaving the profession.




  • They mean workers, once employed by local government to assist elderly and disabled people in their own homes, are now employed by contractors on reduced hourly rates. The workers are worse off and so are their clients, as cost pressure means it is no longer possible for the workers to provide more than the minimum physical services to people who are in equal need of social contact and friendship.




  • They mean the woman working for a finance company, who, if she wants promotion she is expected to show commitment to the job by staying late at work. Her stomach is churning from the stress of trying to finish her work, while knowing that her children’s creche closes at 6pm. Even though she skips lunch breaks, she is finding it increasingly difficult to meet work demands and family needs.



Many of these problems are seen by workers themselves as issues for themselves as individuals, although the evidence shows that unions are more relevant than ever.


In Australia, non-union agreements are more likely to allow for greater employer control over working hours, and for reduced compensation for workers. Union members receive on average significantly higher wages and better conditions that do non-members.


The ACTU is not only concerned about the erosion of workers’ wages and conditions and quality of working life. We are equally concerned about the effect of these changes on the balance in workers’ lives between work, family, recreation, education and rest. The old slogan of the eight hour week struggle of the 1880s – Eight Hours Work, Eight Hours Recreation, Eight Hours Rest – may not reflect current reality, partly because it fails to recognise the unpaid work in the home done, particularly, by women. However, the old slogan does crystallise an important point – life is about personal and social relations and activities at home and in the community. We work to live, not live to work.


Increasing job insecurity and work intensification place intolerable strains on many families. Greater financial and physical pressures combine with cuts to basic services, including health, education, transport and child care, with women carrying more than their fair share of this burden. The aging of the population has meant that many working women are also caring for elderly parents, also affected by the decline in publicly provided facilities.


Unions are not advocating a return to an idealised past, where men worked eight hours a day and women and children waited for them to come home. The reality was never like that, but in any case there is no going back. Neither Australia nor any other country is in a position to pull down the shutters and tell the world to go away.


While employer demand for worker flexibility, driven by the globalisation of the world economy, has contributed to work and family stress and social dislocation, it needs to be recognised that changes in work patterns can better operate to meet the needs and desires of workers.


We are not economic Luddites, but we do want to ensure that change is not used to strip workers of certainty and security, but rather, to enable everyone to share in its benefits.


While the union movement is facing one of the greatest challenges to its relevance and effectiveness, with challenges come opportunities. In this difficult period, Australian unions, like their counterparts across the world, have adopted a range of innovative and creative approaches to organising resistance to the employer agenda.


The NTEU, the union covering workers in universities and other tertiary education institutions, has succeeded in legally challenging employers’ use of rolling short-term contracts for virtually all employees, but particularly women.


Through workplace bargaining, many unions are addressing issues of greater protection for casual and part-time workers, to ensure that they have predictability and security of hours, and that they receive all the entitlements which generally go with employment.


There is also a greater understanding amongst unions of the need for “family friendly” policies. Paid maternity leave, and accommodation of breastfeeding within working hours are becoming more common features in agreements. Attention is also being paid to rostering issues; for example, while 12 hour shifts may suit some workers, many women find it impossible to combine this with their family needs, meaning not only child care availability but the issue of families having time to be together, to eat a meal, to talk, to play. The lack of recognition in our working patterns of the human needs of workers and their families is a characteristic of slavery, and should be rejected by any civilised society.


In confronting the issues of globalisation, international unionism is more important than ever. Australian unions have been greatly assisted by examples of unions in many other countries who are facing similar challenges. International support has also played a part in a number of cases, such as the recent maritime dispute.


When the Lufthansa airline contracted out its telephone call centre to a related company in order to legally apply inferior wages and conditions, the ASU succeeded in its campaign to maintain existing wage and conditions for members at the new company. Central to this campaign was support from the German union covering Lufthansa workers, enabling the ASU to highlight the company’s unwillingness to pay Australians in line with their own nationals doing the same work.


Globalisation lies at the heart of the rise of outwork in Australia, particularly in the clothing industry, where tens of thousands of migrant women work in their own homes for as little as one fifth of the legal wage. Again, this is not a problem confined to Australia; it exists all over the world as free trade pressures force down prices, with workers in the developed world competing with those in developing countries.


The increase in outwork in Australia also involves the issue of child labour. We know that many children in Australia are assisting their parents sewing, ironing and packing clothing, at the expense of their education and their childhood. FIET has been in the forefront of the international union campaign against child labour, and the ACTU is strongly supportive. We are involved in the work leading to a new ILO Convention on child labour, and a number of affiliated unions are supporting projects combating exploitation of children in developing countries.


The ACTU and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union have participated with churches and other community groups in a Fair Wear Campaign which has had great success in bringing the issue of exploitation of outworkers to public attention. Following demonstrations aimed at contrasting the retail cost of garments with the payment to the women who make them, most major retailers have signed a Code of Conduct in which they undertake to ensure that they source their garments from manufacturers who pay their outworkers all their legal entitlements.


The ACTU is also campaigning for state and federal legislation to protect workers who find themselves owed wages and other entitlements by employers who become insolvent. In some cases this occurs as a the result of deliberate company restructuring so that the employer can avoid their obligations. In looking at various legislative alternatives we have been greatly assisted by examples from around the world.


Our campaign can be summed up as having a number of elements:



  • lobbying for legislative change;
  • bargaining for better job security and protection for precarious workers;
  • campaigning for greater community understanding of the effects of precarious employment on economic security and social stability.



With all these issues, your conference focussing on the impact of current employment trends on women is particularly timely. I wish you well, and I am confident that your work will contribute significantly to our collective response to these new challenges.


ACTU President, Jennie George

6th FIET World Women’s Conference, Sydney Town Hall