- The Morrison government is introducing sweeping reforms to Australia’s casual workforce, redefining casual employment, reducing entitlements, and introducing criminal penalties for wage theft.
- Casual workers will theoretically be entitled to an offer of a permanent position after 12 months tenure and six months of scheduled hours – but businesses will retain ultimate discretion.
- The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has already rejected the proposals, claiming they will take away rights from some of Australia’s hardest-hit workers and that the bill represents a “missed opportunity” for genuine reform.
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Sweeping industrial reforms look set to change the nature of work for more than 2.6 million casual workers in Australia.
This week, the Morrison government will introduce legislation that will require employers to offer permanent full-time or part-time work to eligible casuals after 12 months of employment, and six months of regular shifts.
Under the new arrangements, workers would be permitted to decline the offer for permanent work, but businesses would still be compelled to make a new offer every six months as long as eligibility is met.
It’s expected that around one in two casual workers, or more than 1.3 million, would qualify for permanent work under the new legislation.
However, it looks unlikely the legislation would halve the casual workforce, as it offers employers a substantial get-out clause. They will be able to avoid making any offer whatsoever should they determine that a transition to permanent work would be “unreasonable”, or change the number of hours worked dramatically.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) argue the caveat renders the new legislation entirely impotent.
“The proposal makes it almost impossible for casual workers to convert to permanent work and if an employer is unreasonable or does not offer them permanent employment, there is little they can do about it,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said.
The bill would wind back $39 billion in casual work claims
More urgently, legislation will seek to wind back a landmark federal court ruling made earlier this year.
The court found that a casual worker completing full-time hours was entitled to both 25% loading, as well as the benefits that would have been otherwise accrued.
Slamming the ruling as enabling “double-dipping”, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said paying both could potentially “cripple” businesses.
Instead, under the new proposals, a worker’s accrued loading to date would be subtracted from any entitlements granted by the courts, potentially saving employers an estimated $39 billion.
But McManus said the proposals don’t add up.
“Even though we know so many casual workers are not paid more than permanent workers, it also retrospectively takes away rights they would have to paid leave,” she said.
“Casual workers who are incorrectly classified by their employers currently have this right, this legislation would take it away.”
The reforms could achieve the opposite of what they promise to achieve
It signals part of the fight the Morrison government faces as it seeks to pass the omnibus bill composed of five major reforms.
It is positioning the bill as a move to simplify industrial relations in Australia, arguing its necessity to give businesses confidence to begin hiring again.
The least controversial will seek to simplify award rates and introduce criminal charges for employers found to have “knowingly, egregiously and recklessly” underpaid staff.
But other moves are likely to enshrine casual work rather than create a pathway out of it, the unions argue, and threatens to amount to a “missed opportunity” for genuine reform.
For example, the bill will also enshrine the definition of casual work in law in an effort to distinguish when jobs are legitimate casual positions and when they are not. Under the new definition, casual workers are those hired on the basis of indefinite and irregular work.
“It gives employers what they have asked for, that ability to legally label someone a casual, even if they are hired for a permanent, ongoing job. Courts have found this to be a fiction, this proposal from the Government would overturn the decisions of the courts,” McManus said.
The moves come after the casual workforce was devastated by the pandemic and the industrial challenges it brought.
State governments rushed to introduce pandemic leave earlier this year, in lieu of paid sick leave, in order to allow casual workers to stay home if presenting COVID-19 symptoms.
With fewer rights, and making up large swathes of hard-hit sectors like hospitality and retail, casual workers have struggled to find enough hours, even as the economy begins to recover.
Australians still need to be convinced that these latest proposals will indeed right the ship.
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