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Why base casual work policies on last century's industrial relations?

By Richard Curtain - posted Wednesday, 28 July 2004

The issue of the rapid growth in casual work in Australia is now of more than mere academic interest.  Casual work has become a major public policy issue as several state governments, state and federal industrial relations tribunals and, most recently, the Australian Labor Party have taken up the issue.  A report Securing Quality Employment: Policy Options for Casual and Part-time Workers in Australia, commissioned by the ALP’s Chifley Research Centre, is the latest (April 2004) contribution to the debate about what policy response is appropriate to the issue of people employed as casuals. 

However the Chifley Research Centre report offers an outdated model of job security and how to achieve it. It is based on assumptions about work and social risks that applied to Australian society and economy in the first half of the 20th century. While it is written by three academic researchers it does not aim to be a balanced assessment of the issues. Its perspective and tone are ones of advocacy with selective use of evidence to bolster the arguments put. From a broader public-policy perspective, the report is conceptually weak and narrow in the options it offers.

Basis for new ALP policy

The report encourages the ALP to adopt a stricter regulatory regime to limit the growth of casual work.  It has induced a new ALP policy position to re-regulate casual work, as launched on 19 April by Jenny Macklin, (Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Minister for Education, Employment and Training) and Craig Emerson (Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations). 


The new policy seeks changes to award provisions to allow casuals employed regularly for a set period of time, which varies according to the industry, to ask to convert to permanent employment. The award changes would also prevent employers from refusing the request unreasonably. In determining reasonableness, the AIRC would be asked to consider issues like the size and nature of the business. The policy is to ensure that if long-term regular casuals convert to permanent employment they will gain the entitlements enjoyed by permanent workers, such as access to sick leave and annual leave.  In return they will forego their casual loading. Employees who do not want to become permanent can remain casual.

The Australian Financial Review’s Lenore Taylor describes the policy as using "the lightest of regulatory touches" to give long-term casuals the right to request permanent work and the related policy of giving mothers returning from maternity leave the right to request part-time work 

The ALP’s reliance on the Chifley Research Centre report as its sole evidence base on casual work has locked it into a limited and partial set of options. The challenge for public policy is to work out ways to enhance individual’s employability while not "killing the goose that lays the golden eggs".

Changing the way industrial awards treat casual work in marginal ways is a blunt instrument. It does not offer support for individuals trying to negotiate their own employment security strategy in a labour market demanding different forms of flexibility as a condition for employment. A more innovative approach is needed that balances the principles of employment flexibility for the enterprise against employment security for the individual. 

Why the report is flawed

The report is authored by Barbara Pocock, Labour Studies, University of Adelaide, John Buchanan, ACIRRT, University of Sydney and Iain Campbell, Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT. 

My main criticism is that it does not address the new social risks of contemporary Australian society. Reliance on the use of mandatory employment rights enshrined in industrial awards as the only instrument to achieve greater job security is flawed because awards still in many respects protect the primacy of the adult male wage earner as the household head.  


Public policy to improve an individual’s security in the labour market needs to start with the goal of promoting enhanced employability, rather than with a narrow focus on the individual’s right to a particular job.

Job property rights offer an inadequate basis for social protection in the labour market as most jobs do not guarantee permanent tenure (except if you are a tenured academic). Use of mandated employment rights is a reactive one which is overly broad in its scope and extremely difficult to administer. It is a policy option that is not tailored to the needs of individual entities whether they are enterprises or individual employees.

Overlooked are other forms of social security available to protect individuals in a modern welfare state. One is the concept of employment security or employability, which refers to an individual’s capacity in the form of skills, relevant work experience and mobility to gain other work. Policy options exist to enable individuals to better manage the social risks of being trapped in a cycle of unemployment and low paid, temporary work. These include Individual Learning Accounts and access to vocational training linked to work but independent of any one employer.

Uncritical reference is made in the report to continental European practice which, in many cases, is also based on the primacy of the adult male wage earner as the household head. Recent efforts to move away from this model by seeking a balance between flexibility and security in the Netherlands and the Nordic countries such as Denmark offer a much better starting point for developing viable policy options for the new context Australia faces in the 21st century. The Dutch "flexicurity" approach in particular offers a model for a more appropriate policy response.

A more detailed and footnoted review of the Chifley Research Centre Report is available from the author’s website

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About the Author

Richard Curtain is a public policy consultant with a strong interest in skills formation policy. He is a member of an expert panel for Higher Education and Skills Group, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Government of Victoria. He has also recently prepared a response to Australia’s Skills and Workforce Future Focus Discussion Paperof the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency for the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association of Australia and New Zealand.

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