Labor hedges over casual workforce

The Australian, December 28, 2017

The government and business groups have lambasted a union push to restrict casual employment as “scaremongering” and called on federal Labor to distance itself from the campaign.

The opposition refused to rule out supporting an ACTU push to make more casual workers permanent employees, with workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor echoing union concerns about rising casualisation.

Mr O’Connor said Labor would consider changes to workplace laws to enable casual workers to convert to permanent positions after six months of regular work.

“We are examining the conversion. We do believe employers get an opportunity to employ people and see if that works in their workplace, we accept that,’’ Mr O’Connor said.

“We are willing to engage with employers and unions about what is the right time of conversion.’’

Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz said the ACTU plan was a “reheated” idea rejected by Bill Shorten when he was workplace relations minister, citing a report released by the peak union body that recommended a “firmer definition” of casual work and more entitlements for long-serving casuals. Senator Abetz said these recommendations were considered but not adopted by Labor when it was in power.

“This grand plan was a bad idea when it was first floated and rejected by Bill Shorten and it is still a bad idea that should be again rejected,” Senator Abetz said. Mr O’Connor said Labor pledged before the last election to examine the definition and regulation of casual employment.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the unions were running a scare campaign, pointing to Australian Bureau of Statistics data that show the casualisation rate has been broadly stable for the past 20 years.

“Contrary to scaremongering from the ACTU, the proportion of casual employees in the workforce is not increasing,” Senator Cash said. “These types of policies from the Labor Party together with the unions will result in businesses being unable to hire more people.”

ACTU secretary Sally McManus yesterday called on Malcolm Turnbull to address “loopholes” in the legislation that were leading to the increase in casualisation across all sectors.

“There used to be one section of the workforce with insecure casual work but now it is throughout the workforce, showing just how broken our work rights are.”

Business groups rounded on the unions, accusing them of spreading misinformation about the casual workforce.

The Business Council of Australia rejected the idea of a six-month conversion clause, saying that casual work should remain an option for employees and employers seeking greater flexibility.

“The Business Council does not support simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions to complex industrial relations issues,” a spokesman said. “Workplace regulation should provide protection against unreasonable or unfair working conditions, but it should not create a barrier to employment for those who need flexibility to enter the workforce.”

Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong accused the ACTU of “making stuff up” by campaigning to restrict casual work.

“They are losing members and want relevance and to scare people,” he said. “My recommendation to small-business people if this ever came in would be to really think about it before you employ someone, or you put yourself at a high risk. Labor has to come out and reject it out of hand.”

ABS figures show 20.1 per cent of the workforce were casuals in 1998, the same figure as in November 2015.