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The ideological divide in Australian IR politics

By Graeme Haycroft - posted Wednesday, 8 December 2010


Recent debate in the national media over the issue of converting casual employment to permanent employment brings into stark relief the ideological divide in Australian industrial relations politics.

Notably, the charge by ACTU’s Ged Kearney who wants all casuals to be forcibly converted to permanents is predictably rebuffed by employer associations, almost as a knee-jerk reaction.

Noted academics Professors Judith Sloan and Mark Wooden have quoted research inferring that there is no overwhelming drive for casuals to become permanents. They also made the point that if the flexibility of casual employment was removed then significant unemployment of the now casual workforce would occur. The real problem with this debate is the assumption that permanent employment and flexibility are intractably mutually exclusive. In the real world this is not the case.

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Mark Wooden’s excellent research shows that job satisfaction levels of casual employees is virtually identical to that of permanents, but I would suggest that is more because casual employees are fully aware that their jobs exists because they don’t have immutably fixed hours of work and what we know as permanent conditions. Furthermore, they value that flexibility because it cuts both ways. The quid pro quo is that they end up with predictable ongoing work which they recognise is more valuable than having irregular unpredictable work, or no work.

But let us not beat around the bush. Having permanent employment on your pay slip and group certificate is what the vast majority of casual employees want if it wasn’t going to cost them their jobs and the flexibility to work around their family lifestyles. It is almost so obvious that we tend to assume that everyone knows why, but let me spell it out. To get anywhere in this world, you need a steady source of income which enables us to pay regular bills and borrow if needed. Banks love the word “permanent employee” on loan documents.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of real employers would actually prefer staff to be permanents and not casuals. As a professional employer myself with some 1,800 or so casuals on the payroll, I would happily convert 95 per cent of them to permanents tomorrow. About 5 per cent of my staff are short termers who are paid by the day, with no expectation of future employment. They are genuine casuals. By contrast, around 95 per cent of Australian “casual” workers receive reasonably predictable payments and could legitimately be called “flexible permanents” or “permanent casuals”.

Most employers would gladly do the same if we could just do five things.

  1. Let employees negotiate a fixed value for redundancy and severance pay. It’s probably worth about three or four days pay a year. Employers can deal with specific entitlements but not ambiguous contingent ones.
  2. Let employees negotiate a fixed value for sick and personal leave. Same story. If I give them a guaranteed 10 days pay, for them surrendering their right to have 10 days off whenever it suits them. I’m laughing all the way to the bank because I can keep my capital working, but on their side they get paid whether they are sick or not.
  3. I don’t need penalty rates or overtime removed, because all I need is the worker to have the ability to work preferred hours when penalty rates apply at the worker’s volition, for the standard hourly rate.
  4. As with a casual, I don’t want unfair dismissal to apply until after the employee has been in the job for 12 months. I don’t need any change from what already happens with these casuals now.
  5. Let me decide with my employee how many hours they should work each week. No employee need fear unwanted reduction in weekly worked hours over time.

Any worker who is prepared to negotiate with me on these issues can become permanent tomorrow. Let the workers make their own decisions. We don’t want government to force workers to do, or not do, anything. All we need government to do is let us pay workers more for letting them agree to not receive benefits they don’t really want. But government says it knows better than workers what is good for them and denies them their own voice.

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If the ACTU’s Ged Kearney is genuine about this she will join with me in a campaign to change the face of employment in this country. The solution to mutually agreeable permanent employment is nothing more than to allow the employers and employees to do a bit of “horse trading”.

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About the Author

Graeme Haycroft has been involved in workplace issues for over four decades. He is one of the founders of the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland.

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