Addressing the fragility that comes with precarious work
For many years, young people have encountered a labour market with no certainty of employment, variable pay and no annual leave or sick leave entitlements because they are employed on a casual basis, on short term contracts or are ‘gig’ workers. The National Youth Commission Australia (NYCA), in its Inquiry into Youth Employment and Transitions, heard numerous reports of young people struggling to keep their heads above water due to the fragility of precarious work.
Young people told the Commission about the experiences they had as casual employees and ‘gig’ workers. Underpaid, constantly changing jobs and being fired for asking for fair treatment were commonly experienced by the young people presenting to the Commission. Tate is a typical example:
Despite having a great resumé with lots of training, it took me four months of looking to find a job. It was underpaid. I wasn’t paid for my trial and there was a severe lack of communication. I kept hopping from café, hospitality jobs, which were all very familiar. I became appalled at Melbourne’s hospitality scene. Casuals are not valued highly enough or even paid the minimum wage.
– Tate, Oxygen Youth Committee, Moreland Council, Sunshine, 26 March 2019
Employment insecurity increases reliance on income support during periods of unemployment and underemployment. The current income system is based on the idea that unemployment is a short-term, temporary state between extended periods of full-time, secure work. Instead, many young people rely on income support for several years and the inadequate payments mean they are living in poverty for extended periods. The Coronavirus supplement showed that there is no need for anyone to live in poverty while on income support. Unfortunately, even the reduced rate of the supplements is due to end on 31 March. The Commission is proposing a Youth Income Guarantee to ensure that young people have sufficient income support to maintain health and wellbeing, and are encouraged to study and to work.
Precarious work has long term consequences, leaving young people vulnerable to insecure housing or compromised health outcomes, including mental illness. It makes planning for the future impossible. John Thompson, Anglicare WA, noted that:
The lack of stability and security with casual employment makes it difficult for young people to save money, to budget effectively, and also to plan ahead for their future when they have no guarantee of income from week to week, or access to basic employment rights like sick leave.
– John Thompson, Anglicare WA, Perth WA, 13 August 2019
As young people told their stories to the Commission, it became clear that young people continue to desire secure employment that provides certain and sufficient income to pay for the essentials and have a social life. Secure employment can also signify the transition from working just to pay the bills and living day to day to planning for the future and building a career as well as a life outside work.
It is therefore welcome that both the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition have indicated a desire to reduce insecure work. The Government has introduced the Fair Work Amendment Bill (2020) into Parliament that includes a definition of casual employment and will allow casuals to transfer to ongoing employment. However, other aspects of the Bill have been criticised by economists and the Trade Union movement for reducing worker entitlements including pay.
In a landmark speech today, the Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, went further and committed a future Labor Government to reducing insecure work. Mr Albanese set out eight elements of Labor’s Secure Australian Jobs Plan:
- ‘Job security’ will become and objective of the Fair Work Act.
- The definition of employee in the Fair Work Act will be broadened to include more workers such as ‘gig’ workers.
- Entitlements such as annual, sick and long service leave will become portable for workers in insecure industries.
- A fair test will be created to determine when a worker can be classified as a casual.
- Labour hire firms will be better regulated and required to guarantee the same pay for the same job.
- There will be a cap on back-to-back short-term contracts for the same role.
- Public sector jobs will become more secure by ending inappropriate temporary contracts.
- Contracts will be offered to companies and organisations that provide secure work for their employees.
While the Commission welcomes the proposed improvements in job security, these will need to be enforced by an effective and proactive regulator. The high levels of youth unemployment and underemployment will mean many young people will not seek to enforce their rights if it puts at risk their job.