The Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) organised a public meeting on September 23 to discuss the fight for secure jobs in Far North Queensland (FNQ).
It happened as the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released their Spotlight on Job Insecurity and Wages in Far North Queensland report. It noted that workers in Cairns earn 8% less than the national average and are more likely to be employed casually: The rate for casual employment is 28.4% — about one-third higher than the national average of 21.9%.
Workers are in two or more jobs in record numbers, the report revealed. They are also are spending more time looking for work. The report noted that precarious workers in Cairns are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 economic crisis in FNQ.
The meeting discussed how job insecurity shifts economic risks onto workers in all sectors, including hospitality, nursing, construction and universities. Also discussed was how precarity causes significant financial and emotional stress. Many casual workers’ lives are dominated by having to wait to hear about their next shift.
In Cairns, lower wages are a symptom of higher casualisation. The meeting heard that casual workers are meant to get the 25% casual loading to compensate them for lost leave entitlements and job insecurity. But, research by Professor David Peetz of Griffith University found that less than half of casual workers receive any loading.
Aged-care worker and nursing union delegate Dianne Power said that “conditions are being eaten away”. The union is challenging $54 million in wage theft by her employer, she said, and calling for regulated staffing ratios and an end to wage cuts.
Electrical Trades Unions’ Queensland state secretary Peter Ong said workers and their unions are fighting attacks on their rights and conditions on the job, especially in the construction industry. Labor’s introduction of enterprise bargaining in the 1990s led to the collapse of awards as a means to raise all workers’ conditions, he said.
The John Howard Coalition government’s restriction of unions’ right of entry to worksites was very damaging, Ong said. “We are unable to educate workers the way we used to while the boss is in the worker’s ear.”
Even so, he said, unions had been able to restrict labour hire firms. But, from 2016, new federal government regulations in the building industry effectively made that illegal, allowing for the workforce to again be hired on a casual basis.
Hospitality worker Lexi Kearns, QCU Cairns branch president Trish Berrill and QCU secretary Michael Clifford as well as ACTU secretary Sally McManus addressed the meeting. All agreed a change in government would provide more opportunities to campaign for, and achieve, job security.
McManus said the ACTU was launching a new campaign for secure jobs in the lead up to the federal election. The ACTU wants labour hire scams, the casualisation of continuing work and rolling fixed-term contracts to be made illegal.
McManus noted that many unions are campaigning against, and some even winning, aspects of casualisation. Union activists should inspire workers to fight for secure jobs, she said, because we “need more working people’s power in this country”.
[Jonathan Strauss is an activist in the National Tertiary Education Union.]