Half of Australia's casual workers aren't even paid loading, a new report has found, as the government plans to wind back their entitlements

Casual workers have reason to reach for. a drink. (Asanka Ratnayake, Getty Images)
  • New analysis has revealed that nearly half of all casual workers aren’t being paid their leave loading, despite being entitled to it.
  • The report published by Griffith University Professor David Peetz has shed light on the reality of insecure work in Australia, with the country trailing the vast majority of OECD nations when it comes to entitlements.
  • “This report shows that casualisation is a systemic issue in the Australian workforce – the majority of people who are casual should not be and do not receive any of the supposed benefits of casual employment,” ACTU national secretary Sally McManus said, as the unions fight the government over proposed reforms.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The federal government attempts to wind back casual workers’ entitlements could leave vulnerable Australian workers worse off than they were before.

In a bruising critique of the country’s increasingly casualised workforce, a new report suggests Australia is trailing nearly 9 out of 10 high income countries on worker entitlements.

It reveals a quarter of all workers currently have no claim to leave entitlements, according to new analysis by Griffith University professor David Peetz, whether or not they are working on a casual basis.

“This is a very high number by international standards. In the USA, for only 23% of workers in 2018, the employer did not pay vacation leave,” Peetz wrote.

While Peetz attributes the poor showing to “the high rate of ‘casual’ employment” in Australia, many workers without entitlements aren’t even receiving the advertised benefits of casual labour in return, such as higher pay.

“The features of leave-deprived employees do not, on the surface, appear to be the characteristics of flexible, casual employment. The common feature appears to be low power,” Peetz wrote, noting a widespread misclassification of workers classed as casual even when their employment was not.

“‘Casual’ employment reduces employee power and reduces employee entitlements – often without any offsetting ‘loading’ – under the guise of providing necessary flexibility.”

The implications are serious, with casuals in effect holding “permanently insecure” work, subject to termination without notice.

Australia is the exception, not the rule

While ‘casual work’ is part of the vernacular in Australia, it doesn’t hold water overseas where the term is rarely used. Likewise, the conditions that are applied to casual workers in Australia are exceptional, rather than reflective, of work arrangements overseas.

“In most OECD countries, there is a legislated entitlement to annual leave and/or to sick leave, and typically it is only genuinely temporary workers in quite specific circumstances who do not have access to leave,” Peetz wrote.

“Globally, most countries – 130 out of 163 – require that temporary workers generally have the same leave entitlements as permanent workers, including 88% of high-income countries.”

On Australia at least 2.3 million workers – the country’s casual workforce – are missing out on leave. More surprisingly however, the data indicates nearly half of those, or more than 1.1 million, aren’t even receiving loading. The equivalent of 25% extra in pay is ostensibly meant to compensate for the insecure work, as a kind of wage premium.

Analysis shows that if such a premium is paid, it’s not being paid as loading. More likely than not however is the fact that many workers are simply underpaid, with industries that rely on them such as hospitality and retail ranking “amongst the worst for award breaches”.

All this while missing out on the guarantee of future work, guaranteed minimum hours, regular work days, and an ability to choose when to take holidays. They face these conditions, Peetz writes, despite many fulfilling the requirements of part-time or even full-time work.

What’s in a name?

Confusion over the term casual work, and the conditions attached to it, has created a series of headaches in Australia for all involved. It’s partly why the federal government has this week launched a bill to redefine casual work as someone who is offered hours without “firm, advance commitment” of ongoing work.

Chiefly, it produced a legal ruling that found casuals could be entitled to both 25% loading as well as leave, leading to “double-dipping”.

This the government now wishes to repeal, simplifying a needlessly complex IR system and creating a pathway to more secure work.

But with more than half a million casual workers losing their jobs during the pandemic, The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is urging the government to reconsider its proposed reforms.

“This report shows that casualisation is a systemic issue in the Australian workforce – the majority of people who are casual should not be and do not receive any of the supposed benefits of casual employment,” ACTU national secretary Sally McManus said.

“The majority of casual workers are working the same hours every week, but with none of the entitlements that permanent workers can rely upon. They are being ripped off. The proposal from the Morrison Government will not only entrench this, it will take rights off casual workers.”

With such a highly casualised labour force however, it will take more than a few pieces of legislation to turn the tide.

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