Showdown over casual workforce as unions, bosses clash

The Australian, December 27, 2017

Unions will launch a national campaign to restrict rising casual employment across the workforce, pressing for significant changes to the federal workplace laws that will be fiercely resisted by the business community.

The bid has set up a showdown between unions and industry groups opposed to changing the flexible working arrangements of 2.5 million Australians.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said unions would push federal Labor to commit to two key changes to the Fair Work Act: a new “proper” definition of casual work, and the option for casual workers to convert to permanent positions after six months of regular work with one employer.

Under the union claim, employers would not be able to reasonably refuse a request by a casual to convert to permanency, a proposal rejected by the Fair Work Commission in July.

“The issue of casualisation, the casualisation of jobs, is going to be a key focus of the whole trade union movement next year in 2018,” Ms McManus told The Australian.

“One of the key things we want to change for working ­people is turning around or reversing the casualisation of jobs.

“That goes to properly defining what a casual is, which is a real weakness in the Fair Work Act where there is no proper definition and there used to be.

“That’s allowed employers just to call people casuals even though they have been in ongoing employment for a long time.

“What we would want is the commonly understood and old definition of what casual employment is: if you have a reasonable expectation of ongoing work, you have been working regular shifts, you shouldn’t be defined as a casual, you should have all the rights of permanent employees.

“Secondly, changing the act to allow people who have been in these positions for a long time to be able to convert (to permanent positions).”

Employers attacked the union push, with the Australian Industry Group claiming the proposed changes “would be harmful for employees, businesses and the broader community”.

Stephen Smith, the group’s head of national workplace relations policy, said the ACTU bid to restrict casual employment was part of a broader union push to convince the public that the Fair Work Act was unfair on workers.

“The proposition is ridiculous,’’ Mr Smith said.

“The Fair Work Act was im­plemented by the former Labor government.

“It increased union power in more than 100 areas and markedly increased employee entitlements.

“Changes are needed to the act to increase flexibility, not to remove essential existing flexibility.

“Casual employment suits a very large number of people, who prefer this form of employment because it gives them the flexibility that they want or need.”

Retail trade, accommodation and food services account for about 38 per cent of casual workers across Australia.

Federal Labor has committed to examining the definition of casual work and to set an objective test for determining when a worker is casual.

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor said Labor would have further talks with unions and ­employers, and take into account the commission’s decision on ­casual employment.

The commission put a casual- conversion clause in modern awards that allows casual employees engaged in regular patterns of work to request permanent positions after 12 months, but it said that employers should have the right to refuse the conversion requests.

Ms McManus said properly defining a casual would ensure “we don’t have situations where ­people end up being in casual work for 20 years”.

She said her preference was to have the definition become part of the national employment standards.

“We prefer a universal ­application because some people fall out of the award system.

“We would want this extended to everyone, so probably the best sol­ution is having it in the NES,” she said.

Ms McManus said she was confident Labor recognised that insecurity of work was “a high-order issue for working people and they are open to looking at ­solutions for that”.

“I believe the issue of insecure work and wages not keeping up with the cost of living are universally felt,’’ she said.

“If you are in casual work, or other forms of insecure work, the so-called gig economy, every single worker worries about it.

“Either you’re in it, or your kids are in it or you worry about being in it.”

She said workplace laws were not strong enough to combat the growth of insecure work.

“There have been too many loopholes, too many ways for employers to get around ensuring people have rights and security at work,’’ she said.

“We believe it should be a high-order issue for all political parties but most obviously for the Labor Party to address.”

Mr Smith said the current standard definition of a casual employee was “an employee engaged and paid as a casual employee”.

“If an employee is engaged as a casual and paid a casual loading then they are a casual — regardless of the pattern of hours they work,’’ he said.

“If casual employment is to be defined in the Fair Work Act, it is vital that the standard definition be used.

“Any change to this definition would disrupt a very large number of casual employment arrangements that suit the needs of the employees and businesses that they work for.”

Mr Smith said casual-conversion clauses were common in awards, with the employer having the right to refuse on reasonable business grounds.

“Few casuals are union members and this is perhaps the reason why unions are so focused on restricting this form of employment,’’ he said.