Covid-19 and the crisis of casualisation
Recognition of worker exploitation was a contributing factor to the formation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a tripartite body of national governments, workers and employers, formed in 1919 with the aim of bringing peace and social justice to communities via a focus on workers’ rights.
One hundred years later we are again considering the impact of poor employment arrangements on a significant part of the Australian labour market. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the precarious position of casual workers across the Australian economy. Denied access to paid leave arrangements and subject to irregular work patterns and stable income the current pandemic presents opportunities for political, community and business leaders to question what sort of society and economy we want to develop in a post COVID-19 world.
Since the 1980s workforce ‘flexibility’ has been pursued on the basis it is crucial to increasing productivity and enabling more people to enter the labour market. In non-pandemic times about 25% of Australia’s workers are in casual employment, and many of them are in the paradoxical category of ‘regular and systematic’ casual worker. Cassells and Duncan (2020) note women workers are the majority of all casual workers and 57% of the long term casual workforce.
Casual workers bring a suite of skills and knowledge to their employment; competencies employers rely on to deliver quality services. The social support and care sector is dependent on casual women workers. These workers provide support for daily living to people including the aged and those with significant disability. Many are now doing so in dangerous circumstances. Personal protective equipment is lacking and underfunding continues to place more pressure on workers to do more with less.
In our own tertiary education sector there is on over reliance on casual employment. The skills and knowledge of casual workers is fundamental to the development of future problem-solvers, decision-makers and a skilled workforce.
Casual workers are critical to the health, well-being and education of our community. However, they are on the fringes when it comes to employment protection and, as we are seeing now, are being dispensed with at pace. Many are not eligible for the JobKeeper payment and continue to work out of necessity despite the health directions to stay home if unwell.
No-one should be without an income or forced to work. Yet, this may be the situation for casual workers.
A post COVID-19 world must have at its core the rebuilding of a society that delivers economic security to working people.
Governments and employers have demonstrated over the last few months the well-being of people can be the focus of economic decision-making. These decisions have strengthened communities. Continuing on this path of security is key to our recovery.