Keynote speech to SA Organising Conference
ACTU President Ged Kearney

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past and present.

What a pleasure it is to address this conference today. There are few greater privileges as President of the ACTU than to speak before an audience of committed, dedicated and passionate union organisers.

Organisers are the engine rooms of our movement. They are the linkage between our great unions and our members. Nothing happens without organisers and the ACTU is absolutely committed to enhancing the skills and knowledge base of our organisers through conferences such as these.

And it’s also a pleasure to be here in Adelaide – one of the last bastions of a dwindling group of Labor governments around the country.

Coming from Victoria as I do, I can say from the heart that you really do not appreciate a Labor Government until the other side gets in.

Just this week, our new Victorian Coalition Government revealed its true colours by backing yet another attempt by employers to reduce award conditions by seeking to have the minimum call-out abolished from the retail award.

That’s a Liberal Government for you.

Not that Labor Governments are always saintly, and it pains me that we still have to fight for rights at work when Labor is in power.

I am acutely aware that here in South Australia, the state Government has needlessly proceeded with a program of Budget cuts that attacks the entitlements, rights and conditions of all public sector employees in this state, and puts 3700 ordinary workers on the chopping block.

The actions of the Rann Government in this regard have been nothing short of a disgrace.

I have said it before that this attack on public sector workers’ entitlements is unnecessary and cruel – a slap in the face for loyal, long-serving state workers.

And it’s a concern for all workers around Australia, whether in the public or private sector.

For the South Australian Government to pass legislation allowing it to tear up a negotiated agreement sets an uneasy precedent for other states and employers.

A deal is a deal, and when an agreement is negotiated it is reprehensible for an employer to renege on the conditions of that agreement.

By attacking the basic rights and entitlements of government employees and planning forced retrenchments, the South Australian Government has effectively breached the principles of the Fair Work laws.

Is it little wonder then that the Rann Government is slumping so badly in the opinion polls.

There is a lesson in this for all Labor Governments that if you fail to uphold true labour values and act for working people, you will be punished. And the ultimate punishment is at the ballot box.

So I commend SA Unions for its ongoing campaign on this issue. No doubt this campaign partly led to Kevin Foley resigning as Treasurer but so far the government has refused to budge.

As you heard from Janet Giles earlier this morning, today, SA Unions is launching a major new phase in the campaign, including rallies on 24 March and 9 June.

Please attend these rallies. I fully support this next stage in the campaign, and assure you that the ACTU is behind you all the way.

But what I really want to speak to you today about what I see to be one of the most pressing issues facing the Australian workers.

It’s an issue that’s close to my heart and, I know, to yours and that of your members. This is the transformation in the nature of work and the rise in precarious and insecure work.

Over the past decade one of the biggest trends in the Australian workplace has been the move away from secure jobs.

Today, nearly half of all Australian workers are engaged as casuals, fixed term workers, contractors or labour hire workers.

These types of work have now increased to such an extent that they’re almost the norm.

In Australia today we are faced with the remarkable statistic that one in four employees is a casual employee.

This is over 2 million workers. This is one of the highest casualisation rates among the OECD countries.

In hospitality, 65% of all employees are casual. In agriculture, 44% of all employees are casual.

Forty percent of all employees in the retail industry are casuals. Casual work has become a long term norm for many workers.

One in ten Australian workers are now independent contractors. This is over 1 million workers. Some of these workers are genuine contractors with lots of independence, who work for a number of different clients and earn a good income.

But many are economically dependent on a single client and many others are just plain ‘sham’ contractors – employees in all but name and entitlements.  

For other workers, precariousness and job insecurity comes in the form of successive fixed term contracts.

While this is still a relatively small proportion of the workforce, it is a big problem in industries such as education and training, and the public sector.  

Precarious work is no longer confined to particular sectors or particular occupations. It’s experienced across the entire labour market – by men and women – and is increasingly the reality of paid work for many.

But this is about more than just statistics.

It’s about what this means for Australian workers and their families.

Some would have us believe that the dramatic increase in precarious types of employment reflect conscious choices by workers.

That this is what workers want.

People point especially to the increasing numbers of students and women who have entered the labour market over the past decades and say that casual work suits these types of workers because they need flexible hours.

There’s no doubt that some workers do like to be casual. Others like the freedom and flexibility that comes with working as an independent contractor.

I don’t think anyone is questioning that there’s an appropriate role for these types of work and unions support their proper use.

But I don’t need to tell you that not all of the 2 million casual workers in Australia today want to be casual.

That a hospitality worker who’s been working on a casual basis for the same employer for 12 years wouldn’t prefer the security of regular hours and paid leave.

That a casual security guard who’s worked regular shifts for 3 years wouldn’t prefer to be permanent part-time.

That a TAFE teacher who works on a casual basis at three different institutions at the same time just to generate enough income to get by, and who has to find odd jobs to tide themselves over the Christmas and new year break, wouldn’t prefer a permanent job.

The fact is that many precarious workers – whether casual workers, contractors, fixed-term or labour hire workers – would prefer more secure and better quality jobs.

This is supported by the research.

ABS data also tells us that more than half of all casuals would prefer not to work on a casual basis, even taking into account the effect that a move to permanent work would have on their casual loading.

Other research has also found most casuals would prefer ongoing work, with paid leave entitlements.

And there is simply no evidence that casual work and contracting work provides any benefits in terms of better work-life outcomes compared to permanent workers.  

The costs of precarious work
For many workers, casual and contract work means job flexibility that does not work in their favour.
It means no entitlement to sick leave or annual leave, no paid public holidays. It means no job security, no matter how long you’ve worked for the same employer.

It means little – if any – control over working hours. It means not getting enough work to get by, or being required to work at short notice and not wanting to refuse shifts because this risks your access to more shifts in the future.

For many workers, precarious work also means lower pay. Casual workers are more likely to rely on the award safety net.

They earn, on average, lower rates of pay relative to permanent employees.

Casual pay also has many other hazards – it can vary by the week, and over the year.

It is sometimes accompanied by long gaps, lacks minimum call in times and can be whittled away by work expenses.

Many precarious workers find it hard to predict their income, to pay bills and make ends meet.

They find it much more difficult to borrow money, maintain a mortgage and organise their family needs.

Many worry about saving enough to ensure they have a decent living standard in retirement.

This is at the same time as workers are being asked to absorb more and more financial, social and economic risks.

There’s been a massive increase in financial risk among working families, with household debt levels above 150% and vulnerable to rises in interest rates. In addition, a growing proportion of household budgets are spent on services like health and education that were once provided by government.

And all this at a time when profits as a share of national income are at record levels, and wages’ share is the lowest since the early 1960s.

Employer-driven flexibility
So if it’s not what workers want, then what has driven the dramatic rise in these types of paid work?
The reality is that the growth in non-standard types of employment has been driven overwhelmingly not by workers but by employers.

Under the guise of introducing ‘flexibility’ into the workplace, employers have shifted many of the costs and risks associated with employment from themselves onto workers, including through the increasing use of
precarious types of work.

This flexibility, of course, being code for the flexibility to hire workers when needed and to lay them off when business is slow.  And, in the case of contractors or labour hire workers, not to have to worry about payroll, or paying workers comp or super.

Unions aren’t against flexibility.

Indeed we welcome discussion at the enterprise, sectoral or national level about productivity and flexibility.

But this has to be real productivity and it needs to be real flexibility – that works for workers, not just employers.

The reality is that precarious work – whether in the form of casual work, contracting, fixed-term employment or labour hire – has proliferated because these types of work are, at least in the short term, cheaper and easier for employers.  

And because our industrial relations system has let this happen.

Campaigning for secure work
Some will tell us that this is just the way the Australian labour market is. That this is the future of work. A flexible workplace on the employer’s terms.

I’m sorry but I just don’t accept that.

I don’t accept that is it our future to be marginalised and voiceless in the workplace. To shoulder all the risks.

Nor do I accept that this is too big to change.

So what can we do about it?

Precarious work is not just about the changing nature of employment in Australia and the changing nature of employment contracts.

It’s about the quality of that work.

And it’s about what this all means for workers, for their families and for our communities.

There’s no doubt that reversing the trend of casualisation and other types of precarious work in Australia is a daunting task.

You will have read or heard in the media something about the campaign we are planning in this area.

I’m convinced that, through campaigning strongly on this issue, we can make a big difference for working people.

And I know that all the unions are on board. I’ve been amazed – and so encouraged – by the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve received to the idea of a movement-wide campaign on precarious work.

The campaign is still in development. It will be multi-pronged and it will be over a number of years.

There are no silver bullets and no quick fixes. No one-size-fits-all solutions.

The ACTU campaign will have a number of components: education and enforcement about existing rights, industrial and bargaining, community work to find solutions to the financial pressures caused by insecure work, and political/legislative solutions to improve workplace laws where rights are inadequate.

The ACTU’s role will be to identify policy solutions to insecure work, to co-ordinate campaigning across the union movement, and to assist unions where they are already campaigning on issues of insecure employment.

I envisage a campaign that is long lasting, overarching and community based.

We need a campaign that not only addresses the issues, but one that will re-invigorate our activists from the YR@W campaign, that grows and encourages new activists and that just might make people feel they should join the movement.

We need a whole of movement action. It could link in so well with your public sector campaign for example. Budget cuts create uncertainty and insecurity.

The beauty of this idea is that it can encompass so many campaigns already being run by unions, from the TCFU’s piece workers to the TWU’s safe rates, from the United Voice’s hotels campaign to the SDA’s minimum starts issues.

Imagine if can link all of these together, talk about them with similar messaging, proclaim the outcomes as a win for the movement’s focus as well as the union.

And who knows we might garner enough support from the community to make it safer for a somewhat timid minority government and the independents to make some progressive policies!!

Growth of the movement and progress for working people is the aim.

Finally, I’d like to quickly tell you about the Working Australia Census.

This will be the biggest ever survey of union members in the Australian workplace, and it aims to give each and every union member a chance to have their say on issues that matter to them and contribute to the movement’s agenda over the next ten years.

We hope that more than 50,000 workers will take part in this online census.

I’m excited about the census as a genuine opportunity to generate a two-way discussion with our members.

But I need your help. Once the survey is launched in May, union organizers and delegates will need to promote it to members to ensure maximum engagement.

I need you out in workplaces every day telling members about the census and encouraging them to spend 20 minutes to complete it.

There are benefits for you too, because what better conversation starter for recruitment and organising is there than a survey like this?

It may even help you identify new activists in the workplace.

There will be a website where the survey will be housed:, so stay tuned for more.

And lastly please sign our climate change petition.

Thank you and enjoy your conference.