Insecure work isn’t a made-up problem. It isn’t normal. And it isn’t inevitable

Insecure work comes in many shapes and sizes, according to the Centre for Future Work.

Insecure work comes in many shapes and sizes, according to the Centre for Future Work. Photo: Getty

Being employed used to come with certain rights and protections that underpinned stability and security for workers and their families.

Most jobs were full-time permanent positions, supplemented by standard entitlements (like paid leave and superannuation).

That world of stable, secure work is long gone. It has been eroded badly as various forms of insecure work spread through the labour market. Especially for young workers, the idea of a permanent waged job with normal entitlements now seems like a far-off dream.

Insecure or ‘precarious’ employment comes in many forms. About one in four waged employees is hired on a casual basis: With no guarantee of continuing work, no notice or compensation for severance, and denied basic benefits like annual leave or paid sick leave.

But casual work is just one of many forms of insecure employment.

Others include most part-time jobs, labour hire and other temporary positions, many contractors, precarious self-employment (especially sole traders with no employees), and workers in the gig economy.

Even permanent full-time jobs are less secure than before, jeopardised by corporate outsourcing and supply chain fragmentation.

Business groups and conservative commentators pretend there’s nothing new about insecure work.

They claim the share of employment in casual jobs is stable – an easily disproven lie. They say other irregular arrangements (like gigs) reflect workers’ desire for ‘independence’.

This week some ridiculed Anthony Albanese for his concern over insecure work, hoping for another ‘gotcha’ moment that might damage the Labor leader’s campaign.

This effort to simply deny the issue isn’t believable. A huge majority of Australians – 88 per cent, according to the ABC’s Australia Talks survey – believe insecure work is a significant national problem.

Perhaps Prime Minister Scott Morrison could pop into the now-famous Edgeworth Tavern in Newcastle, and try to convince patrons there that insecure work hasn’t gotten any worse. His reception would surely be no warmer than when he discussed disability pensions there this month.

Insecure work comes in many shapes and sizes, and no single metric captures its full extent. But across all dimensions, there is no doubt that insecurity is now endemic in Australia’s labour market:

  • Casual work: Casual employment rises and falls, often sharply, in response to economic conditions. During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost two-thirds of job losses were incurred in casual positions. Then, as the economy reopened, most recreated jobs were casual. Some, like former finance minister Mathias Cormann, might consider these ups and downs a useful “design feature” – but it comes at a terrible human price
  • Part-time work: Almost one-third of Australian jobs are part-time, the fourth-highest of any industrial country. Most part-time jobs are casual, even most permanent part-time jobs offer irregular hours and lower pay. Part-time work also surged dramatically as the economy reopened after COVID – accounting for more than half of new jobs in the year after initial lockdowns
  • Multiple job-holding: Many workers in insecure and irregular jobs must piece together several jobs to make ends meet. This is stressful and precarious, and total earnings are unpredictable. As of end-2021, 867,000 Australians worked multiple jobs – the highest share of total employment ever
  • Gig work: Statistics on ‘on-demand’ or gig work are incomplete. But a detailed survey conducted for a Victorian parliamentary inquiry in 2019 found 7 per cent of adult Australians (about one million people) performed on-demand work in the previous year. Gig work is especially insecure, since workers are disengaged instantaneously whenever customer demand slows
  • Collective agreement coverage: One way to win a bit more certainty at work is through a binding enterprise agreement that sets wages, conditions, and job security. But this basic protection is disappearing fast, too. Since 2013, the share of employees working under a current federally-registered enterprise agreement has plunged by almost half, to under 15 per cent.

Considering all these dimensions of insecurity, only a minority of Australian workers now enjoy the security of stable, waged, permanent employment.

In 2019, even before COVID, less than half of working Australians held a permanent full-time waged job with paid leave. More than half worked in casual, part-time, self-employed and on-demand jobs.

Unit: Millions of workers

This isn’t a made-up problem. It isn’t normal. And it isn’t inevitable. It reflects deliberate policy choices that have been made by Australian governments, to enhance business flexibility and profitability – but at the expense of security and stability for workers.

The ‘just-in-time’ workforce is great for employers: They can upsize and downsize at will.

But it’s harmful for workers and their families. And we learned during COVID that it poses enormous dangers to society, too.

With over one-third of workers having no access to paid sick leave, many worked when they should have stayed home – literally threatening lives.

Australia urgently needs policies to limit insecure employment, and support better, more stable jobs. Basic protections (like paid sick leave) must be provided to all workers, regardless of status.

Pretending the problem doesn’t exist won’t help anyone.

Dr Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. Dr Mark Dean is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Carmichael Centre

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