A labour hire company in Melbourne has unwittingly been cast into the media spotlight after angry workers and union officials last week slammed the requirement that casual workers must wear barcoded armbands.
While the armbands in fact contain an ID number which workers must scan before they can use work equipment, the row began because permanent workers at the warehouse do not have to wear the armbands. Further, the armbands do not need to be worn at all times, but the casuals must carry the armbands at all times. Also, according to reports, the workers must also pay for the bands.
The case has been used as an example by unions as an outward instance of discrimination and concerns over the so-called ‘casualisation of labour’. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, some 605,000 people are now casually employed by labour hire firms.
An official with the National Union of Workers, which discovered the armband case, said it was a case of employees not being treated with dignity. “The unregulated use of agency casual labour is creating an underclass that threatens our way of life,” the union's assistant national secretary, Paul Richardson told The Age. “Every worker should have the right to a job they can count on and be treated with dignity at work,” he added.
In response to the uproar, general manager of Manpower Australia and New Zealand, Chris Riley, the group which provided the workers, said the wearing of armbands was sought by the warehouse operator and it was a simple case of a client requiring site-workers to wear ID. He added that it was Manpower's responsibility to ensure its workers were “not worse off in any way … We have to ensure that the work practices are appropriate for our people. But in terms of how they are identified, [that] is really another thing”.
The Recruitment and Consulting Services Association, which has many labour hire firms among its members, recently produced a report on benefits of the agencies to manage skills shortages. “For the majority of employers, it's not a choice of 'hire permanent staff or hire temporary staff'. It is in fact 'hire temporary staff or don't hire at all',” the report said.
The ACTU has run a highly-publicised campaign on what it has labelled a growing class of insecure workers. It has highlighted the temp and casual employment practices of labour hire firms as an issue, but employer groups have said the claims are exaggerated. According to the ACTU, insecure work arrangements now account for almost 40% of the workforce.
But employer groups have said the ACTU is exaggerating. John Lloyd from the Institute of Public Affairs said the 40% figure did not stand up to scrutiny, and that the 9% of the workforce who are in casual employment arrangements were happy to work on their own terms.
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