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What to do about casual work – an alternative approach

By Richard Curtain - posted Tuesday, 31 August 2004

The casual work debate has heated up. Do the claims made for the precarious position of casual employees stand up? Are there alternatives to the award-based changes proposed by the Australian Labor Party?

The debate about casual work has witnessed some grand overstatements about the nature and extent of temporary work. The trouble is the industrial relations definition of “casual work” includes a wide spectrum of different types of work arrangements. These vary from the short term and precarious working arrangements for some to long term, ongoing work for others. Little or no information is provided by the critics of casualisation about the extent of the numbers in precarious work.

One measure of perceived job insecurity suggests that it is much lower than widely claimed. The Australian Bureau of Statistics asks people what they expect in 12 months time in relation to their job or business. Only 10 per cent of all employed people in November 2003 did not expect to be with the same employer or in the same business in 12 months. However, when asked the reason, only less than 2 per cent of all employed people said this was likely to be due to factors beyond their control.


Barbara Pocock in a recent piece for On Line opinion Only a casual? But isn't casual work highly desirable? exemplifies this misuse of statistics. Barbara reports on her qualitative study of 55 people. These people are said to be employed as casuals but there is no indication of how this employment status was defined other than subjectively. The sample was not a representative one, indeed most in the sample self selected to participate in the study. Nevertheless, generalisations are made from the study about the extent of negativity that casual workers have towards their work. A qualitative study may be valuable for exploratory purposes but it cannot be used to generalise to the population as a whole.

An alternative approach
What are the alternatives to the ALP’s policy to permit those employed as casuals to ask their employer to move to “permanent” status? The starting point for good policy is first to identify the principles to underpin a proposed policy option.

Underlying principles to consider
In seeking to re-regulate casual work, three sets of stakeholders’ needs require consideration. The intervention proposed needs to encompass as much as possible the needs of these three main groups of stakeholders.

  • The first refers to the needs of individuals in terms of access to work, their choice about whether to accept a particular job or not and working conditions they are prepared to accept.
  • The second set of needs refer to the employers offering the jobs. These refer to their requirements for flexible deployment to enable the business to remain competitive.
  • The third set of needs refer to those of particular groups such as young people and married women who have suffered past discrimination in the labour market.

A more nuanced policy approach offers forms of social protection to individuals that do not rely on particular employers. This approach involves first identifying those who are the most vulnerable in the labour market. It then involves working out different ways that government can assist individuals to manage risk based on a good understanding of their vulnerabilities.

Regulation may be part of this policy solution but it needs to be highly specific to the situation it is addressing. Broad-brush award changes are not likely to do this.


Social protection for individuals in the labour market
The Netherlands offers one approach to labour market regulation based on the twin principles of flexibility and security. The policy has been dubbed “flexicurity” and is suggested as a new approach to labour market reform.

The “flexicurity” policy is a product of strong state intervention to promote job growth, undertake welfare reform, while retaining industry and company level collective bargaining.

The Dutch model of “flexicurity” regulation
The Netherlands has the largest percentage of agency workers in the labour force in the European Union. Temporary work agency collective agreements have been widespread since 1999. The so called “flexicurity” legislation, through collectively bargained agreements, guarantees temporary agency workers more secure employment, better pay and social security entitlements as their duration of employment in this type of work increases.

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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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