The rise of casual work has been a major feature of labour restructuring in Australia for the past twenty years. Young Australians are struggling to survive under insecure work arrangements, and their struggles haven't been properly recognised. This style of work is enhancing inequality, and precarity has become entrenched in young people’s experiences of life and work.
When the subject has surfaced publicly, the usual industrial relations stakeholders claim that casual work offer employers and staff “freedom of choice”, casual work is a “stepping stone” into better jobs, and provides unskilled workers with a transition from low to higher wages. For this reason, the notion of precarious work has become synonymous with the modern youth labour market. However, what proportion of “freedom of choice” do staff within the secondary labour market have, and to what extent are the “flexible” agreements reciprocally beneficial?
The Howe Inquiry outlined insecure work as work with unpredictable pay, inferior rights and entitlements, restricted or no access to paid leave, irregular or unpredictable operating hours, uncertainty over the length of employment, and an absence of input on wages, conditions, and work organisation. All of those conditions were completely rejected by the wider public as the Howard Government steamrolled them through parliament under the moniker of ‘WorkChoices’. While that legislation was publically debated, campaigned against, and largely banished by Australians at the 2007 Federal Election, there has been little to no action on the rise of insecure work.
It would be naïve to ignore the fact that for some people, casual work is a lifestyle choice. It would be equally naïve to ignore the fact that for many others, casual work is not a choice at all – it is all that they can get. Within the hospitality industry for example, along with retail, agriculture, forestry, fishing, administrative sectors, casual workers constitute a very high proportion of the total workforce.
Defining economic success
As the Australian government continues to proclaim its ‘success’ in lowering unemployment and increasing economic growth, this has been in the midst of an increase in temporary, insecure and precarious work for Australian and migrant workforces. The ensuing competition for monetary stability and status promotes individualistic expedience and an absence of solidarity that means that the most vulnerable often become isolated when they're not vying against one another.
It is not strange that a culture promising flexibility, freedom, and rights of individual Australians espoused by the economically and politically powerful is concurrently silent on the Fair Work Commissions recent decision to cut the penalty rates (wages) of retail and hospitality workers.
Under a reductive notion of self-interest, freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility. Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, ignore safe workplace practices and charge obscene rates of interest on loans. Freedom from taxes means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty. The liberty that the current Liberal/National government offers appears to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.
We need to amend our laws so each employee, no matter how they're utilised, has access to a set of minimum entitlements and rights. People need to know their rights when they first start working, and we need outreach programs for vulnerable groups of workers such as seasonal migrants, underemployed youth and unpaid interns. We must accept that job insecurity is the consequence of an economy, driven by profit at all cost, that used workplace reforms to take advantage of those who can least afford it.
Brendan Manning is a NSW Green and member of the Australian Young Greens