New standards for workplace flexibility are required to prevent growing disadvantage and inequality of opportunity, security and income says ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

Today’s workforce is very different from the one that I entered when I started work 25 years ago.

There have been a lot of positive changes. Women’s workforce participation has increased. New technologies and business practices have made jobs more interesting, challenging and rewarding for many people.

The growth of part-time work has been beneficial to a lot of people and the flexibility of some casual work is convenient for those who, for example, are mixing work and study.

But there are considerable downsides to workplace change that warrant a new level of public debate.

In the last 20 years, a large part of the risk associated with a more competitive and open business environment has been shifted directly onto employees through growing casualisation, contracting out and agency employment.

Increasingly widespread job insecurity, the ongoing intensification of work, and falling employment standards are serious problems for millions of people.

Despite the new possibilities of greater workplace flexibility, many employees feel they have little control over their working lives and are without real choices.

Income inequality in Australia has increased despite a decade of sustained economic growth. There has been an explosion of wealth at the top end of the labour market, while middle income jobs declined. Most new jobs are low paid, part-time or casual.

New standards for workplace flexibility are required to prevent growing disadvantage and inequality of opportunity, security and income.

A few statistics tell the story: 90% of the new jobs created during the 1990s paid less than $26,000 a year. Half paid less than $15,600 a year. And low-paid work is not confined to students or young people – 70% of low-wage workers are aged 25 to 54.

One million people earn less than $15 an hour before tax. In many lower-income occupations, full-time jobs have shrunk to part-time positions. Under-employment means less money for day-to-day essentials, let alone the cost of maintaining a family.

Many of these workers are also likely to be casuals, who now account for 27% of the workforce – a growing proportion of employees without basic entitlements like sick leave, holidays or redundancy pay. Half of casuals have worked in the same job for more than a year but still have no job security.

Work has become more intense. Both full time and part time workers have experienced staff cuts, increased workloads, expanded responsibilities and an accelerated pace of work. One-third of all employees regularly work unpaid overtime.

The increased pressure means that meeting even basic family responsibilities such as picking up children or caring for a sick child is an employment problem for many working parents.

When asked in surveys, around one-third of all workers say they want fewer hours, while one-quarter of part-timers would prefer full-time jobs. Two-thirds of casual employees would prefer more predictable patterns of work.

The workplace challenges of the future demand a wide, national discussion. While there is no going back to the past, the trends of change raise fundamental questions about our values as a society. They will help determine the type of lives our children can expect.

A central question in the debate is how to reconcile the legitimate aspirations of working people for security and better living standards with the legitimate commercial interests of employers competing in an open economy.

The ACTU does not pretend to have all the answers. But unions are developing practical policies to meet the future challenges of workplace change.

Job insecurity could be substantially reduced (and some labour costs saved) if longer term casual workers, for example, had a right to convert to permanent status after a minimum period of six months in the job.

Choices for employees trying to balance work and family could be considerably improved (often at no cost to employers) if workers had a right to negotiate more family friendly hours, including options for secure part-time work, extended unpaid parental leave and emergency family leave.

Widening income inequality should be ameliorated by real increases in minimum wages and targeted tax and welfare relief for working families.

Future policies should recognise that increased labour market flexibility and productivity are compatible with greater employee choice and adequate minimum standards, including a decent level of employment security.

By building standards for flexibility into the competitive workplaces of the future, Australians will be able to share more fairly in the benefits of increasing prosperity.