Casual jobs ‘are not on the rise’

A staff member in the Royal Arcade in the Melbourne CBD, Victoria, serves diners. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Ian Currie
A staff member in the Royal Arcade in the Melbourne CBD, Victoria, serves diners. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Ian Currie

Leading researchers have shot down union claims that casual work is increasing and unfair, finding the share of casual employees in the labour force is practically unchanged over 20 years and most casual workers are as happy with their jobs as other staff.

The share of “non standard” work – such as casual or self-employed – increased only slightly to 55.6 per cent over the 17 years to 2017, including a barely changed casual share of around 20 per cent, new research by the Melbourne Institute has found.

“The most striking feature of the trend in the casual employment share is how little has changed since 2001,” said Professor Mark Wooden, who with co-author Inga Lass also found little sign “gig” work was rising rapidly.

“The persistent decline in the self-employment rate is also intriguing, especially given widespread concern about increasing reliance on independent contractors and freelancers,” they added.

The share of temporary agency workers in total employment fell from 3.1 per cent in 2001 to 2.4 per cent in 2017.

A second research paper that also analysed Melbourne Institute’s household and income survey, involving over 15,000 respondents, found mental and physical wellbeing were no lower among workers employed on a casual, fixed-term, or self-employed basis.

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“If anything, casuals have healthier outcomes across almost all health outcomes examined,” said Professor Wooden, who was an author of both pieces of research.

“The data from this survey clearly challenges any myth that casual work is typically ‘bad’ or that it necessarily provides a negative experience for workers,” he added.

“Even for the casual jobs that seem most likely to impact negatively on mental health – jobs with irregular hours where the worker reports having limited control over hours – there was no evidence of any negative impact,” the study found.

The union movement has long campaigned against casualisation of the workforce, arguing workers are left worse off by the arrangement which provides a higher hourly rate of pay – typically about 25 per cent – in lieu of more regular and certain hours, annual and sick leave.

Christopher Ouizeman, chief executive of recruitment specialist, Drake International, told The Australian casual work had “outstanding benefits”.

“A better work/life balance, increased personal empowerment with more choice and flexibility, greater learnings from a wide variety of work experiences, expanded professional networks, opportunity to develop and strengthen your professional skill set,” he said.

In May the federal court found some long-term casual were entitled to annual leave, a verdict hailed as a victory by the ACTU.

“We need the stop the practice of some employers labelling jobs “casual” when they are in fact permanent. This has stripped workers of rights and security,” said ACTU secretary Sally McManus, at the time.

In June the government tasked five “working groups” including unions and employer groups to come up with ways to reform the industrial relations system, including one focusing on potential changes to casual work.

The two studies also found workers in permanent jobs were more likely to express satisfaction with their job security, but this didn’t translate into higher levels of overall job satisfaction.

“The only group of workers that stands out markedly from the rest are the self-employed, and they are the group that on average is most satisfied,” the authors said.

Men aged 25 to 44 in casual work, however, were noticeably less satisfied with their work than women of the same age in casual jobs.