Towards Fairness and Security: Reforming Casual Employment in Australia

July 27, 2023

Work and Workers

In Australia, the concept of the fair go remains one of our most enduring principles, saturating our cultural and political discourse. A concept so emblematic of Australia ­­— the lucky country — where fairness, egalitarianism, and mateship shape our national character, it has permeated Australian industrial relations, from the 1907 Harvester Decision to the 2022 Aged Care Work Value Case.

The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (‘FW Act’) took this very Australian notion of the fair go, and built around it ‘a new workplace relations system ready to meet the needs of this nation in the 21st century’. Key to this was the inclusion of a fair and comprehensive safety net: a set of minimum employment conditions, which cannot be stripped away. But today, too many workers find themselves excluded from this safety net, falling through loopholes in our workplace laws. The prevalence of casual employment and other forms of non-standard work have exacerbated a growing crisis of insecure work in this country, blighting our Aussie fair go.

Australians live in a rich country ­— one of the richest in the world. In 2023 Australia ranked 10th highest GDP per capita in the world and third highest among the world’s 20 largest economies. Since 1980, labour productivity has increased dramatically, with every Australian worker contributing to that achievement. But workers have not been equally or adequately rewarded for their work, as their real wages lag behind labour productivity.

Today, in our rich country, more than 90% of the gains from economic growth go to the top 10% of income earners.  Company profits are soaring, while real wages are falling. The number of Australians working multiple jobs has hit a record high as everyday people do what they can to survive during a cost-of-living crisis.  A job is no longer enough to stave off poverty in our country, and more Australians are turning to charities just to meet their basic needs.  

In the face of this catastrophe, what are Australian workers told to do? 

Spend less money and work more hours.  

Absolutely preposterous! 

We know that there is another way, a way to reinvigorate the fair go in Australia.  

Closing the loopholes in our workplace laws and standing up for casual employees is the right place to start.

For many of the 2.6 million casual workers in Australia, their jobs are not characterised by the notions usually associated with casual employment: flexible, irregular, or absent a firm advance commitment of continued work. Instead, the real characteristics of casual employment are: low pay, low power, low safety and low security.