The Rise of Casual Work Puts Us All at Risk

The rise of casual work has multiplied uncertainty, lowered wages, undermined conditions, and handed power to employers.

With the rise of casual work, livelihoods are determined more and more by the whims of supply and demand, depriving many workers of the kind of certainty essential to a stable and healthy life. (Jack Taylor / Getty Images)

Insecure work is toxic. . . . It is no good for anything, for families, for a sense of security [and] for public health, for any purpose. We have a lot of people who work very hard but have no safety net to fall back on and that is just not something we should settle for.

This is how Victoria premier Daniel Andrews described insecure work, thirteen days into Victoria’s stage four lockdown. Andrews was stating what his government had implicitly acknowledged when it brought in a $300 (later increased to $450) payment to help insecure workers without sick leave self-isolate while waiting on COVID-19 test results. Labor unions had been calling for measures like this from day one.

Genomic sequencing shows that the second wave of coronavirus can be traced almost entirely to breaches in Victoria’s outsourced quarantine program. Private security firms hired temporary workers, providing them with inadequate training and protective equipment, leading to multiple outbreaks and adding to the now overwhelming case against insecure work.

However, some still defend casual employment — for example, economist Mark Wooden of the University of Melbourne. In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article, Wooden argued that the additional 25 percent casual employees are paid (known as “loading”) and greater flexibility more than make up for a lack of stability and entitlements.

Most casual workers do not receive anywhere near 25 percent loading; in most industries, 4–5 percent is more common. Over a lifetime, casual workers earn significantly less than their permanent coworkers.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Casual work in Australia, as in the rest of the capitalist world, is a flawed and callous system. Since rapidly expanding in the 1980s, casualization has harmed workers and society as a whole.


The Ideology of Casual Work

Wooden’s defense of casual work is incoherent, but his errors are telling. Citing self-reported evidence, he assures us there are no ill health effects associated with casual employment. Then he happily tells us that casual employment is associated with lower household incomes, as though poor health and poverty weren’t intimately connected.

More revealingly, Wooden outright ignores one increasingly casualized sector that directly refutes his claims: academia. At the University of Melbourne, 72.9 percent of employees are in casual or insecure work arrangements, a similar proportion to many other Australian universities.

Casual staff in academia report feelings of vulnerability and isolation. In addition to poor mental health, this can lead to work-related deaths: in 2016, a casually employed academic committed suicide after his casual contract wasn’t renewed for the coming semester.

Wooden claims that 25 percent loading compensates for this “flexibility.” Yet this assumes that casual employees may choose to work as many hours as their permanent colleagues. In reality, casual academics rarely work comparable hours — during the semester, they often stretch themselves thin over multiple contracts before struggling to make ends meet for months during nonteaching periods. These conditions make medium- and long-term planning impossible, reinforcing the psychological toll.

Worse, like workers in other insecure industries such as hospitality and retail, casual academic workers are also subject to underpayment and wage theft. The University of Melbourne has recently conceded it underpaid casual academics millions of dollars over the last decade, practices described by the National Tertiary Education Union as “diabolical” and “systematic.”

Casual work also hands unchecked power to employers. Casual workers need never be formally terminated — their employer can simply decide not to give them shifts. Without sick leave and at risk of summary de facto dismissal, it’s little wonder that many aged care and abattoir workers continued to work while symptomatic.

Far from giving employees greater freedom, carefully balanced against the interests of employers, the rise of casual work transformed the nature of the employee-employer relationship.

Old Jobs, New Jobs

In 1990, French intellectual André Gorz noted that if no ameliorating measures were taken, the rise in automation would dramatically transform work. His essay, titled “The New Servants,” suggested jobs lost on the factory floor — by no means the easiest or best jobs, but ones with benefits — would be replaced by the jobs of “servants,” primarily in service industries.

Gorz argued that these jobs would be casualized, partly a consequence of increased productivity brought about by the microelectronic revolution. As time-saving technology reduced total necessary labor time, it became necessary to distribute less work across the population. Casual jobs made this possible.

In other words, casual jobs were never meant to replace full-time work. Casual workers will always, on the whole, work fewer hours than permanent ones. The reduction in total working time was masked by the standard measure, which considers someone who works one hour per week employed.

The loss of jobs in primary and secondary industries and the growth of casual jobs in tertiary or service industries created a further problem. Primary (and to some extent secondary) industries generate “productive substitution” where necessary work is performed better and more efficiently, saving time across the economy. For example, in place of cottage industries, necessities are mass-produced. Similarly, household appliances reduce the time required to reproduce labor.

However, tertiary service industries result in “unproductive substitution,” in which consumers pay others to perform tasks they don’t wish or don’t have the time to do themselves. In effect, this replaces an hour of one person’s labor time with one hour of another’s. Gorz warned this would lead to a “two-speed economy,” where those who remain fully employed and wealthy would be able to purchase the services of others.

Gorz also foresaw that the services economy would grow beyond traditional hospitality jobs, creating more specific service jobs: cleaners, dog walkers, personal shoppers, drivers. He was right. Today we have Uber for transportation, Instacart for shopping, and Mad Paws for dog sitting.

Yet Gorz did not predict the kind of contract underpinning these casual jobs. Uber is an extreme example: drivers rarely pull out ahead. This is because they are independent contractors and, as such, they must provide a car, maintain and insure it, and cover up-front costs themselves. Those who are able to string together a living using Uber often hold other jobs.

This feeds back into other sectors. For example, without employer obligations, across all industries casual employees are less likely to have training costs covered. This is a form of wealth extraction, transferring necessary costs onto employees. Casual contracts also facilitate business models that exploit “just-in-time” labor forces. Worse still, instead of hiring employees on fixed hours, in many instances businesses recruit via labor-hire agencies or as independent contractors. Known as “sham contracting,” this form of hyper-exploitation is prevalent in many industries, from agriculture to cleaners and security.

This means livelihoods are determined more and more by the whims of supply and demand, depriving many workers of the kind of certainty essential to a stable and healthy life. If the jobs lost in the current pandemic are replaced with casual jobs or app-based work, these issues will only be exacerbated, and the fabric of society will be further unwound.

A Casual Future

Are casual jobs really the future? Parliamentary data shows that casual work has remained at around 20–25 percent of all jobs since about 1998. However, if labor-hire, self-employed, gig-economy, and contract workers without long-term job security or leave provisions are included, the figure rises to 4.8 million workers — or, approximately 37 percent of the Australian workforce. Further factoring in the rise in permanent part-time work, fewer than half of Australian workers are in traditional, full-time employment.

Despite precarious employment having been pushed into the spotlight by COVID-19, there are good reasons to fear that the pandemic and resulting recession will worsen the situation.

The last major explosion in casualized work occurred around Australia’s last recession, between mid-1991 and 1992. This followed the deregulation of Australia’s economy and the introduction of the Prices and Incomes Accord (1983) under Labor PM Bob Hawke, which drove up unemployment and limited union power, respectively. Simultaneously, there was a massive explosion in casual work: casual jobs grew by 89 percent between 1982 and 1989. During and after the 1989–1992 recession, this trend was locked in as permanent positions with entitlements dropped by 5 percent while casual jobs grew by 9 percent. Over time, unions found themselves defending a slowly shrinking permanent, full-time workforce.

In sum, our last major recession was foreshadowed by an increase in casual work that continued afterward while permanent jobs were lost. We are seeing the same thing happening now. In July 2020 115,000 jobs were added to the Australian economy, of which only 43,500 were full-time.

While about a quarter of older workers are casually employed, the number of casually employed young Australians (aged fifteen to twenty-four) is growing. This is not simply because flexible work suits students. Other figures show that recent graduates struggle to find full-time employment, often finding themselves stuck in the same casual jobs they worked while studying.

Casualized work is becoming the norm — and not just at the bottom of the career ladder. Old jobs, already filled, tend to be permanent, while new jobs are increasingly casual. So, when the old jobs disappear, what will replace them?

Without addressing casualization, there is no hope of reversing the downward mobility facing millions of Australians today. Gorz may be right that as deindustrialization proceeded, the overall labor required by modern societies diminished. As a stopgap solution, casualization has left more of us underemployed — and with more time on our hands. But this is often a time filled with anxiety and dread, waiting to hear if we’ll have work in the coming week.

This is what defenders of casual work like Professor Mark Wooden miss. “But why would any workers accept such jobs if working conditions are as bad as portrayed by the critics?” he asks. After dismissing the explanation that casual workers have no choice, Wooden proposes another explanation: “. . . That casual jobs are mostly not bad jobs, or at least the workers taking those jobs don’t think so.”

Such is the insight of a professorial fellow who is, according to the University of Melbourne’s 2018 Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, entitled to a base salary of $187,654, generous superannuation, and ample leave.