Casual workers most exploited

Workers during the Baiada dispute in 2011.

The latest unemployment figures have revealed symptoms of a long rise in inequality and falling living standards for working Australians. The unemployment rate now stands at 5.7% — the highest level since the beginning of the financial crisis back in late 2008.

According to the latest figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of full-time jobs fell by 4400 in the month of June alone, while the number of part-time employment positions increased by 14,800.

Commenting on this disparity, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry executive Peter Anderson also pointed out that businesses were increasingly cutting working hours of their employees to reduce costs.

If we include people who are underemployed in these figures the overall unemployment rate immediately jumps to well over 13%.

It is in this area of casual work that the most atrocious of exploitations take place — cash-in-hand payments of $9 an hour, 14-hour shifts with no overtime pay, no health and safety cover, “SMS shifts” with no secure timetable, no service or parental leave entitlements.

Of even more concern is the fact that casual, labour-hire and contractual workers make up nearly 40% of the total employed workforce in Australia.

More than 400,000 casuals are employed on a fixed-term basis, and more than 620,000 workers are employed through labour-hire agencies across Australia.

Casual employees are also heavily concentrated in certain industries, with retail, accommodation and food services together accounting for 40% of the entire casual workforce. In accommodation and food services in particular, casual workers make up an alarming 64% of all employees.

Finally, as to be expected, there are a proportionately higher percentage of casual workers among young people, particularly if they are women. Twenty percent of all casual workers are aged 15-19 and 25.5% of all female employees are casual, compared with 19.7% of male employees.

Perhaps the most exploited of all casual workers are those employed through labour-hire agencies. The labour-hire agencies, titled “Temporary Staff Services”, are a $15.6 billion dollar industry, which have recorded $906.9 million in profits at the end of last year.

When Australia made a move from arbitration to collective bargaining, no provisions were created for the inclusion of workers employed by third-party contractors such as labour-hire agencies.

As such, the issue of casual work has not been dealt with at all. Therefore, labour-hire workers have traditionally missed out on the entitlements of permanent or even casual workers on-site, whose contracts are nominally included as part of the EBA agreements.

Labour-hire workers do not only suffer from the everyday problems that plague the contemporary working class, such as dealing with the rising living costs, the ongoing cuts to education and welfare entitlements, as well as the social problems associated with racism, homophobia and sexism at the workplace. They also from the atrocious and completely dehumanising conditions that they are subjected to by their bosses.
Take, for instance, the story of William Dai, a casual worker employed by labour-hire agency for several positions. Dai's entire work schedule was dependent upon the text messages that he received from the labour-hire agency to appear on the work site at a scheduled time and day of the week.

At times, he received no work shifts in over two months. Without a stable income, sick pay or annual leave, many other cold storage workers like Dai were faced with a situation of not living, but rather surviving from one day to the next.

In the call-centre industry, already widely known for its widespread outsourcing and the rapid degeneration in workplace conditions, similar stories are heard from the workers.

One particular elderly worker, who wished to remain anonymous, remarked on how his attempts to join a union to secure his award wage led to the termination of his work.

While undertaking his next call-centre job, he was often forced to work three-hour shifts and was then sent home with an equivalent of one hour pay, particularly in the case of poor equipment maintenance.

The company used long service leave that workers were entitled to as the tool to make the workers redundant once they came back to work.

But of course, the nightmare of job insecurity is the modern-day poultry industry in Australia. Two big companies, Ingham and Baiada, dominate 63% of the market.

Considering the production process is highly labour-intensive, labour costs are accordingly the second highest expenses for the companies.

It is for that reason that the companies, particularly Baiada, have engaged in highly unethical labour practices that have earned them hundreds of millions of dollars in profits each year.

The strike led by Baiada poultry workers in Laverton in November 2011 was the flash that clearly illuminated the darkness that plagues casual workers in that industry.

The most terrifying of all aspects was the complete lack of safety, characterised by the brutal death of Sarel Singh who was decapitated while cleaning a machine in a Baiada plant in August 2010.

According to the research conducted by the National Union of Workers, at least 35% of all workers in the industry have sustained injury at the workplace.

Furthermore, sham contracting targeting immigrant workers is widespread throughout the industry — packing contractors earn $300-$400 a week cash-in-hand on $7 to $10 hourly rates. The contract workers are also often subjected to routine work days of over eight hours without any breaks.

In the light of these continuous attacks on the rights and the wellbeing of workers, they have been continuously organising and uniting together to built fightbacks and defend their rights at work.

The Baiada workers secured a big victory for secure work and pay rises in 2011. The Toll workers at the Coles distribution centre in Somerton have secured provisions for rostered days off and clauses for casual workers to be given permanent positions after nine months.

The Polar Fresh workers at Costa Logistics secured a big claim in April this year to have 80% of the workforce employed as permanents, creating 200 more secure jobs and a 4% pay rise for all workers.

The workers at Gale Pacific plant in south-east Melbourne led a successful strike in May to ensure permanency for all of its casual workers.

In June, The workers at Levi-Strauss distribution centre in Adelaide pledged to stand together to ensure equal pay is given to their permanent and casual workers.

Finally, the workers at Woolworths Hume distribution centre in Broadmeadows recently secured 40 additional permanent positions for their casual workers and are fighting to have the casual workers’ rights to be represented by the union.

Rolling back casualisation and insecure work cannot be achieved by mere negotiations between the union leadership and company management. Only through a successful, active and united campaign on the ground can the workers defend the job security they have.

The trade unions need to adopt a grassroots based approach to organising workers on site, particularly in regards to delegates on site.

Furthermore, the cross-industry trade union grassroots campaigns such as the National Union of Workers’ “Jobs You Can Count On” need to be created and used to turn every union member into an activist — not just at the workplace, but in the greater community as well.

Only active and politically conscious trade union members that stand together irrespective of their employment type, gender, nationality or religion, possess the power necessary to defeat any future attacks on workers’ rights.

[Denis Rogatyuk is a community activist with the National Union of Workers.]

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