Casual Workers Deserve Better

Casual Workers Deserve Better Main Image

09 August 2021

I'm pleased to speak on the motion moved by the member for Paterson. Last week we saw the High Court overturn the Federal Court's decision in the case of WorkPac v Rossato, in yet another blow for casual workers who are fighting for job security. Casuals are already facing an uphill battle because of the Morrison government's push to legitimise the concept of permanent casuals—casual workers who stand side by side with full-time employees, working the same hours day in, day out, only to take home substantially less pay. This government has turned its back on the Australian value of 'same job, same pay'. It has legitimised wage theft and allowed job insecurity to grow.

Let's look at the facts. Pay rates for labour hire casuals are on average about 30 per cent less than those of permanent workers, and that's if they don't take leave; the difference is closer to 40 per cent if they do take leave. The widespread use of casual labour hire in construction, manufacturing and mining is a blatant cost-cutting measure that leaves regional communities hundreds of millions of dollars a year worse off. Australia has the highest proportion of temporary labour in the developed world. About 40 per cent of Australian workers have casual or insecure jobs, like gig work or labour hire. In the medical and health sectors close to 23 per cent of the workforce is casual; in building and construction it's 23.6 per cent; and in the accommodation sector it's 44 per cent. For these workers, financial insecurity is the norm.

Thanks to deregulation of the labour market over the last 30 years, too many Australians are now stuck in limbo as permanent casuals. It is commonly accepted that casuals are paid a loading to compensate them for insecure work and lack of paid leave. But most casuals are still receiving less than permanent workers doing the same job. In fact, for many casuals, the longer they remain trapped in insecure work, the more likely they are to be paid less than their permanent co-workers. Half of all casuals would prefer to have a permanent job with paid leave, but in some industries workers aren't given a choice.

It's casuals who have also borne the brunt of this pandemic. In March last year, when the first wave hit, many casuals lost work and many were excluded from JobKeeper. It's now 18 months later, half of the country is in lockdown, and casuals have once again been plunged into uncertainty. Some have lost hours, while others are still working on the front line as essential workers in retail, aged care, disability support, transport and cleaning—people on low wages who can't work from home or access sick leave if anything goes wrong. On the other side of this crisis, we must make sure that Australians who want secure jobs can find them, especially in regional Australia.

To finish, I'd like to turn to the impacts of casual work on mental health and wellbeing. The link between insecure work, financial distress and mental health crisis is well known. As soon as the sector you work in is at risk, your mental health is at risk; and, as the demands of your work grow and the control you have over your circumstances drops, the risk increases. Over the last 18 months, hundreds of thousands of Australians have found themselves out of work as businesses have folded or workforces have been trimmed, and many people are experiencing mental health problems for the first time in their lives. We know that almost one in five Australians will struggle with their mental health in any year. But some Australians are much more likely to experience mental health problems, including those looking for work or those in insecure work.

Mental ill-health has been described by some as a second-wave or shadow pandemic, and this government is risking people's lives if it doesn't create more opportunities for secure work. In the National Suicide Prevention Adviser's Interim Advice Report, it was recommended that the government should 'develop a Commonwealth process for reviewing new policies or initiatives to ensure they assess any impacts—positively or negatively—on suicide risk or behaviour'. The Prime Minister says mental health is a priority, and I believe him, but he can't ignore the impacts of his policies on mental health and wellbeing, especially when it comes to the casualisation of the workforce.

We know from the Productivity Commission's final report in its mental health inquiry that mental ill-health is costing the Australian economy upwards of $200 billion a year, a sum that is reported as being a conservative estimate. We know that these aren't just numbers in a ledger. These are real people, and their lives are at risk as they struggle to find work and struggle for more secure work. The Prime Minister says mental health is a priority, but every day, in the policies and the decisions of his government, he's risking people's mental health and their wellbeing. Our communities deserve better. Local people deserve better. Casual workers across Australia deserve better.