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Friday, 22 October 2021 16:28

The increasing costs of how we treat cheap labour

By Stacey Dowson
Stacey Dowson Partner, Dowson Turco Lawyers Stacey Dowson Partner, Dowson Turco Lawyers

GUEST OPINION: Since Covid-19 hit our shores in February last year it has become clear the way we live, play, work and do business has forever changed. Reform needs to be enacted based on what we’ve learnt as we move ahead, especially around the casualised workforce sector.

According to the ABS, prior to the pandemic, casual workers made up around 25% of our employed workforce and that figure now sits lower, at around 17%. Some businesses have struggled and some have gone under, and some of our most vulnerable that make up much of the casual workforce have been adversely impacted.

Many young people, people with disabilities and many migrant workers are now out of work, with little support offered to them. Major industries such as retail, hospitality, tourism, and entertainment, which historically employ large numbers of casual workers have been negatively affected, with tourism and the arts almost completely shut down.

Also, consider those who are still employed in the casual sector: delivery drivers, essential retail and pharmaceutical workers, medical and support staff, cleaners, transport staff, fast food restaurants and chain staff. They are now working harder for longer, on mostly minimum wage and more recently in unsafe or higher risk conditions. You have to wonder, will our workers go to the extreme that Burger King staff in Nebraska, US did and quit en-masse?

Despite industry groups, unions and business leaders making recommendations over the years, there remains a glaring lack of legislation to protect casual workers income, welfare, and rights. While State and Federal governments have mostly, done their best, by scrambling to get limited support in place for business owners and their employees; casual sector workers have fallen through the cracks, and the ACTU flatly states that Scott Morrison’s government has abandoned them.

Financially, the casual sector has always had a vulnerability. The pandemic just laid bare its vulnerabilities. JobKeeper did little to assist casuals unless they’d been employed for 12 months in the same job, a criteria which many failed to meet.

In March 2020, according to the Government’s DSS Data report, around 800,000 people were registered for Jobseeker support payments, by April that number rose to over 1.2 million. You would have to assume a good chunk of that increase is attributed to casual employees losing their jobs. Recipient numbers for the Jobseeker payment have slightly reduced to around 1 million for the same period this year, but as we emerge from lockdowns it will be those in secure full-time and permanent positions that will be first to go back to work, so that figure will be slow to decrease.

The Black Dog Institute surveyed over 5 thousand people in March-April 2020 and reported that around 75 percent of respondents said their anxiety and depression had worsened since the onset of the pandemic. The Institute’s ramifications of Covid-19 report states that casual workers are at increased risk, due to economic instability, stress and heightened fear of sickness or infection, often rendering them unable to work. It’s no surprise that many mental health bodies and experts collectively expect that mental health issues will worsen as the pandemic drags out and agree the psychological trauma will be with us long after Covid-19 has left us. 

While crisis payments provide an interim solution to the masses of casual workers without leave entitlements, their position remains uncertain and this is especially so with the Delta variant now rampaging on our shores. The Australian Council for Social Services has called for urgent action to sort out the gaps in the entire system.

Fundamentally, there needs to be industrial relation reforms around the casualised nature of some of the larger workforces, including in aged care, disability care, hospitals and in supermarket staff across Coles and Woolworths.

There has always been a grey area in the definition of ‘casual worker’ within the Fair Work Act and recently there have been amendments. In short, there has been some token changes around options for permanency and restricted unpaid carers, compassionate, family and domestic violence leave. Not much to see there, but perhaps the final findings of the WorkPac Pty Ltd v Rossato [2020] High Court case will encourage further positive amendments. 

With over 2.2 million casual workers in our country, many employed by the industries that are hit hardest during lockdowns – hospitality, retail, education, entertainment, and tourism – there is no better time for changes to be implemented to support our casual workforce on all fronts.

As with everything else pandemic, our health and specialist experts need to be consulted to inform changes to be put in place, to support our casual workforce, not just the businesses that engage them. The cost of this pandemic should be measured not only in the economics of the country but in the mental and physical health of those, especially the more vulnerable, that make our communities, our economy and this country thrive.

About Stacey Dowson: 

Stacey was admitted to the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1996. She has since worked across many areas of law and through various positions in private and community practice. Stacey has worked with numerous community legal centres and has also held the position of Director at Women’s Legal Resources Centre. Stacey is also a proud member of one of the appointed committees of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras board and has been for the past four years. Stacey holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Music Radio and a Bachelor of Laws. Immediately prior to starting her sole legal practice, Dowson Solicitors, in 2003, Stacey was the Principal Solicitor at the University of Technology, Sydney's Law Centre. In 2008, Stacey joined forces with Mary Turco to create Dowson Turco Lawyers. Stacey is the Managing Partner of Dowson Turco.

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