Casual employment in 2004

Casual employment is a much-debated area of work, but it comes with a number of often unappreciated benefits, writes Peter Anderson

Casual employment is a much-debated area of work, but it comes with a number of often unappreciated benefits, writes Peter Anderson

The world of work has changed significantly over the past generation. Employment regulation needs to be flexible to allow businesses to respond to clients, consumers and competitors. Employees are more skilled, more mobile, and one size does not fit all. Preferences over how, where and when to work differ markedly. One staff member might want to maximise earnings, whilst another will maximise time off for family, for parenting, for personal study or simply for leisure.

Whilst the traditional concept of a full time job remains a large part of our labour market we have develop new ways of working – part-time work, casual work, job sharing, multiple jobs, fixed-term work, self employment and independent contracting.

Casual employment since the 1980s has grown from about 15 per cent of the workforce to about 27 per cent in 2004. Although the growth has been steady over this period, the rate of growth in the past five years has slowed. The highest growth rate occurred in the late 1980s.

A generation ago casual or part-time employment was regarded as a lesser form of employment, something to be discouraged, or something that threatened full-time jobs.

We have now moved beyond some of those old assumptions that were based on the male dominated Monday to Friday full-time job. In 2004 casual work has its own legitimacy to employers and employees who choose it.

Flexible work arrangements also helps us meet important social and industrial goals like achieving high rates of return from work for mothers after maternity leave; increasing participation rates in the labour market among young people and students; making our businesses more efficient and competitive; and helping to better balance work and family.

Some of our emerging challenges, such as population ageing are also assisted by flexible forms of employment that enable mature aged workers to more easily transition from work into retirement.

Casuals are paid by the hour at a loaded rate usually between 20 per cent and 30 per cent higher than full-time or part-time staff. They do not receive accruing rights like annual leave and sick leave. A casual wage, and the loaded casual rate, can be a very useful component of the family budget especially in lower income households.

Not surprisingly, most casual employees work in service industries like retail, hospitality and clerical as well as in industries with peaks and troughs like agriculture and tourism. Forty-five per cent of casual employment is amongst the young and student workforce not looking for a current long-term labour market commitment. More than 70 per cent of casual employees want to remain in casual work.

The growth of casual employment over the past 15 years has not been at the expense of full-time jobs. Staff seeking casual work are not usually in the market for a full week’s work. A recent analysis of the Australian labour market by Professor Kevin Doogen of the University of Bristol concluded that there has been a dramatic rise in the long-term workforce in Australia, at the same time that we have increased casual employment.

Women’s employment has increased by 30 per cent and the long term employment of women has increased by 75 per cent, which part-time and casual employment has helped facilitate.

Although federal law and industrial tribunal decisions have removed some restrictions on casual employment, there is still plenty of employment regulation that applies to casual workers.

In some industries a casual employee is allowed to choose to convert their employment to permanent part-time, with the employer carrying the onus to oppose conversion if they wish to. Where conversion rights exist, they have been rarely used. For example, more than 98 per cent of casual employees in the manufacturing industry have chosen to maintain their status as casuals. This suggests that most casual arrangements are truly consensual, and staff prefer to maximise their incomes and not loose the casual loading.

Some employers wrongly believe that employing a person as a casual employee and paying the higher hourly rate avoids all or most employment regulation that applies to permanent staff. This is not so – as employers in the unfair dismissal jurisdiction have discovered.

Courts are also prepared to go behind employment descriptions if they believe that the substance of the relationship means that it is not really casual employment.

Peter Anderson is director of workplace policy for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a member of Human Resources editorial advisory board

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