The end of JobKeeper will leave workers vulnerable to underpayment and sackings, a legal group warns

Casual and part time workers could face rising pressure as JobKeeper gets eliminated. (Horacio Villalobos Corbis, Corbis via Getty Images)
  • Australian staff could find themselves increasingly exposed to worker right infringements with the elimination of JobKeeper, a legal group has warned.
  • Job Watch said that casual and part-time worker complaints soared during the pandemic, with the removal of government support expected to only exaggerate the issue.
  • It comes amid sustained lobbying by economists and unions to retain the subsidy until the labour market stabilises.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The planned removal of JobKeeper could leave workers vulnerable in the midst of an uncertain economy, an employment rights groups has warned.

With the fallout from 2020 to become clear in the coming months, Job Watch says the removal of government support will only serve to pull the rug out from under workers, especially those on limited hours.

“During the height of the pandemic, 35% of all COVID-19 related employment calls to our Telephone Information Service were from part-time and casual workers, an increase of almost 10% from normal operations pre-COVID,” executive director Zana Bytheway said.

She expects that with an uncertain economic outlook ahead, employers may lack the incentive to keep workers on regular hours beyond March.

Combined with the rise of insecure work, including the explosive growth of the gig economy, Australia may see a rising tide of worker rights infringements, Bytheway warns.

“The growing numbers of casual and part-time positions being advertised does concern me, especially with the upcoming end of the JobKeeper subsidy in March. We’re facing a perfect storm of workplaces in financial difficulties and workers being let go, stood down and underpaid – or even unpaid for the work they do,” Bytheway said.

She cites the case of Tom* as one example, whose employer wanted to stand him down and pay out his annual leave in the meantime using the JobKeeper wage subsidy. The employer threatened to sack him if he refused their demand, before Job Watch intervened.

The economic backdrop

While the unemployment rate fell in December to 6.6%, according to the latest ABS figures, there are plenty of job hunters struggling to find work.

The data shows 900,000 Australians remain unemployed, while a further 1.2 million are underemployed and looking for more hours.

“We have heard a lot about economic recovery, but for many Australians this is still completely out of reach. Many sectors still badly effected by the pandemic, such as tourism, aviation and universities are being left struggling and without support,” Michele O’Neil, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), said.

The unions and some economists have been lobbying the government to extend the subsidy until the labour market stabilises further, with Deloitte modelling suggesting it would be cheaper to keep it. It remains however a proposal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has repeatedly rejected.

“A genuine recovery from the pandemic and the associated recession requires sector support, job creation and wage growth., It is more important than ever for the Government to look after working people, not set them back by cutting JobSeeker payments and ending JobKeeper,” O’Neil said.

But Thursday’s ABS figures will help steel the Morrison government’s resolve. A 0.2% drop in unemployment, and a significant fall in underemployment to 8.5%, are encouraging signs that the economic recovery is underway.

“The underemployment rate is now back to pre-crisis levels and that is a surprise given the nature of the COVID-19 crisis and strong growth in part-time roles. There was a risk that underemployment would remain stubbornly high during the recovery, as was the case with the global financial crisis, but thankfully that appears to not be the case,” Indeed Asia-Pacific economist Callam Pickering said.

The improvement comes as the participation rate hits a new high, indicating “Australians are returning to the workforce in record numbers”.

But it’s the removal of key support policies that will truly test the labour market, with Pickering noting there’s still “a long way to go.”

“The economy will also face some difficult challenges in the coming months. The removal of JobSeeker and JobKeeper being the most obvious. These policies have played an important role in keeping people employed or out of poverty. Stripping billions from the economy will surely prove disruptive to some industries and occupations, particularly those who have suffered the most from COVID-19,” he said.

Nevertheless the federal government looks unerring in its desire to test it.

* Name has been changed to protect his identity.

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