The report of the Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work, Lives On Hold: Unlocking the Potential of Australia’s Workforce, was publicly released on 16 May 2012.

Executive Summary

This Inquiry was commissioned by the ACTU to investigate insecure work and its impact on workers, their families and the community, and to provide recommendations on what might be done.

The internationalisation of Australia’s economy over the past 30 years has undoubtedly improved living standards in Australia. At the same time however, the changes that have occurred in our economy and society have also given rise to the unprecedented growth of insecure work.

This has occurred for a number of reasons, but the key driver has been the emergence of a business model across both the private and the public sectors that shifts the risks associated with work from the employer to the employee, and minimises labour costs at the expense of job quality.

An open economy in an internationally competitive environment like Australia’s will never be able to compete by driving down labour costs. Instead we need to focus on innovation, improving the skills of our workforce, and improving productivity.

To do that, we need to be radical in thinking about new approaches to training and educating our workforce.

And we must ensure that labour law provides protection to all workers, rather than legally sanctioning exceptionalism by removing a whole range of securities and entitlements from certain workers.

We have made a number of recommendations setting out how we believe this might be achieved.

First, labour law must be reformed to provide a universal set of protections to all Australian workers. In Chapter 2 we have recommended that:

  • Australia must pursue universality in labour law. Doing this effectively requires:
  • Expanded definitions of employers and employees;
  • Reforms to better capture indirect employment arrangements like labour hire and dependent contracting;
  • A firmer definition of casual work; and
  • Expanded National Employment Standards that create a set of inclusive minimum standards that protect all employees.
  • Fair Work Australia should be given stronger powers to determine where joint employment relationships exist and to grant ‘Secure Employment Orders’.
  • A licensing system for the labour hire industry should be established.
  • The ACTU should develop a ‘gradual deeming’ mechanism that would see casual employees accumulate entitlements like annual leave over time.
  • The Federal Government must invest more resources in enforcing the Fair Work Act.

However, simply refining labour market regulation won’t limit the growth of insecure work. To provide decent work for all, we also need to ensure that an effective safety net is in place for people who fall out of work and invest more in our workforce – especially the most disadvantaged.

These proposals should be seen as alternative to using temporary overseas workers as a substitute for investing in the Australian workforce – an approach that employers and governments are increasingly turning to. The move to a ‘guest worker’ model of immigration is a stark shift away from post-war patterns of migration, and will only offer the country a short-term escape from the need to skill-up our workforce.

In Chapter 3 we have called for a number of reforms aimed at achieving a more skilled workforce, including:

  • A broader focus on work-life transitions, rather than the narrow preoccupation with the transition between employment and unemployment that has led to an emphasis on ‘welfare-to-work’ initiatives.
  • A commitment to lifelong learning, including a call for the ACTU to investigate learning accounts as a model for investing in the capability of workers over the lifetime.
  • Reform to Australia’s tax and transfers system to provide a stronger safety net by:
  • Addressing the inadequacy of the Newstart Allowance;
  • Simplifying income declaration systems; and
  • Abolishing the Liquid Assets Waiting Period.
  • Changes to the way Job Services Australia interacts with forms of insecure work such as labour hire.

We have also called for the ACTU to investigate models for a comprehensive system of employment insurance.

Government also needs to take its role more seriously, and recognise just how influential it is as one of the largest employers in the country. Chapter 4 sets out a comprehensive approach that would see Governments at all levels make stronger use of their leverage as employers, funders and purchasers to support secure forms of employment.

We have made a number of recommendations for how this can be achieved in direct government employment in the Commonwealth and State public services, in funded sectors such as public and tertiary education, and through government procurement.

Finally, Chapter 5 sets out some ideas for how the challenge of insecure work can be tackled by the union movement and by potential partners in civil society. In many ways, our Inquiry has barely scratched the surface of the issue of insecure work. To take this work forward, we are calling for the ACTU and the broader union movement to commit to a broader and deeper engagement with civil society organisations around insecure work. We have also identified a number of areas where our understanding of the nature and impact of insecure work could be improved, and some ideas for how the union movement could link the research that is needed to action.