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Only a casual? But isn't casual work highly desirable?

By Barbara Pocock - posted Monday, 16 August 2004

A new qualitative study of the experiences of 55 casual workers challenges some Australian myths about casual work. In the study, 55 casual workers were interviewed about their views on casual work. The group were randomly selected from a pool of 136 current or past casual workers who responded to newspaper calls for their participation, to flyers distributed by their employers or in their workplaces or at university, or were drawn from a random sample of members of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, along with ten names offered by four other unions.

In terms of overall views of casual work, three types of casuals are evident in the study: the positive, the ambivalent and the reluctant. The majority are reluctant casuals: 36 of the 55 interviewed are negative about being casual. Many are very negative. A quarter is – overall – positive about being casual. Most of these are students, younger people or women with dependents. All are part-time. Most have a back up source of income – a partner, parent or pension – and most are at certain stages in their life cycle. Two key conditions drive satisfaction: real say over working time through a "reciprocal negotiating" relationship with the employer, and a back up source of income. Often both are present among positive casuals.

While flexibility is often taken as the defining characteristic of casual work, it is far from the only criteria taken into account by casual workers when assessing overall experience. The experience of casual work is multi-faceted. Issues affecting overall assessments include flexibility for the worker; predictability of pay and hours; respect, say, training and promotion at work; sick and holiday pay; and impacts on health, home and community.


Some employees find that being casual gives them flexibility. Twenty-three of those interviewed in the study – or 42 per cent – feel that they had some flexibility and say over their work patterns. Some value it highly. However, the majority do not have flexibility: fifty-eight per cent of those in the study see flexibility as something their employers get, but they do not.

Flexibility has many dimensions including predictability of ongoing work, days of work, total hours, start and finish times and breaks. Many casuals have surprisingly little capacity to influence these aspects of their casual work, despite the promise of casual flexibility. Many feel on call, more than in charge of their working time.

Most interviewees would prefer to be permanent. Some have tried to become so, without success. Some are in a long-term casual ghetto. For many, casual work is not a pathway into permanency.

A good boss emerges as very important to satisfaction with casual work. A good relationship with this boss is critical to real flexibility for most. Depending on a good boss for some employee control and say is seen as a precarious and unreliable means of protection. Many casuals want to see an improved floor of rights, along with their enforcement.

Many casuals work in fear of dismissal, assuming they do not have rights to contest unfair dismissal. Some do not know when they have been effectively dismissed: they wait for the call for a next shift that does not come.

The loss of respect and workplace citizenship – voice, communication, training, promotion, inclusion – emerge as very important aspects of casual work for workers.


Casual pay holds many hazards: for many it is variable by the week, and over the year. It is sometimes accompanied by long gaps, lacks minimum call in times and is drained by work expenses. Low hourly rates and under-classification mean that many casuals look to the casual loading to get them to a livable hourly rate. Their hourly rates are often lower than those they work alongside.

Most interviewees received the casual loading; a quarter did not or do not know what it is. Of those who receive it, the majority felt that the loading did not adequately compensate for the difference between being casual and being permanent.

Many casuals go to work sick. When they are sick they weigh up ‘how sick, how injured, and how poor’. Illness is a moment of real hazard, putting health at risk and sometimes ongoing employment when they refuse work. Some do not get a second chance.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is based on Only a casual… How casual work affects employees, households and communities in Australia, by Barbara Pocock, Rosslyn Prosser and Ken Bridge, can be downloaded from here.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Barbara Pocock is a Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, in the School of Social Sciences.

Photo of Barbara Pocock
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