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Employment insecurity and COVID-19

Karen Douglas

August 12, 2020

Labour markets over recent decades have changed substantially in both focus and security. Technological innovation and social changes have driven new types of jobs and increased workforce diversity. Women, migrant and young workers are present in the labour market in larger numbers than ever before. Insecure or precarious employment, work without leave entitlements, with inconsistent or unknown working hours and with limited to no long-term contractual engagements has also increased.

The significance of this development is brought out by examining the ‘standard employment’ relationship. This form of employment is characterised by ongoing employment, full-time hours, one employer, career opportunities, leave arrangements and legislative protections from unfair or arbitrary employer behaviour. Established in times of full employment, the standard came to represent a normative, ideal, form of employment. Trade unions, employer groups and governments focused on this form of employment when negotiating employment rights. Social safety nets including sickness benefits, unemployment payments and aged and disability support were established on the basis of this standard.

Yet this form of employment created an entrenched structural disadvantage in the workplace because it excluded many women, migrant workers, and often young workers. A recent report into the on-demand workforce in Victoria confirmed about 50% of the Australian workforce is in full-time employment therefore subject to protective employment arrangements. With COVID-19, short-term contracts, casual engagements and fixed-term employment arrangements have evaporated. These contractions expose the insecure employment that is prevalent. Recent Australian data confirms service workers such as those in bars, restaurants, accommodation retail outlets or recreational facilities have lost employment. These job losses have hit women and young workers the hardest, perpetuating decades long labour market exclusions. Nonetheless, the work undertaken by these precarious employees is fundamental to the social and economic well-being of the country.

To address the current moment, as well as the long-term nature of precarity, we should note that the drive to secure decent employment arrangements is an international one. In 1998 the International Labor Organization (ILO) reaffirmed its commitment to decent work via the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. As a member state to the ILO Australia has agreed to these principles. Further, in 2006 the ILO agreed on a set of employment arrangements to protect vulnerable workers. Recognising employment regulation has been diminished, creating gaps in decent work, the resulting Recommendation 198 established a modern regulatory framework underpinned by a commitment that no worker should be deprived of protective employment conditions.

In its deliberations as to how to recover from COVID-19, Australia is presented with an opportunity to embed secure working conditions. Disrupting long held presumptions about the pervasiveness of the ‘standard employment relationship’ begins to open up a discussion on how employment is undertaken. The ILO’s declaration and recommendation set out a roadmap as to how that can occur.

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