Rights of casual workers grow as industrial battle widens

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has unveiled plans to give an estimated 850,000 casual staff new rights to full-time employment, allowing many to convert if they work regular shifts.

Mr Burke said the government wanted to close a “loophole” in workplace laws that allowed bosses to classify workers as casuals despite staff working on regular timetables for extended periods.

“Many casuals won’t want a permanent job. If you’re a student or just working a casual job to make some extra money, this change won’t matter to you,” Mr Burke said in a speech to the Sydney Institute on Monday.

“But there are casual workers who are trying to support households … they’re being used as though they’re permanent workers and the employer is double dipping — taking all the advantages of a reliable workforce and not providing any of the job security in return.”

Common sense changes, expert says

The changes described by Mr Burke would enshrine conversion as a right in the Fair Work Act, defining casual employment by the substance of the work being done rather than just what’s on a contract.

Trent Hancock, a workplace lawyer and principal at Jewell Hancock, described that as a common sense change, saying current rules were “very susceptible to manipulation” by employers.

That’s because changes under the former Coalition government defined casuals by the type of contract a worker signed with a company rather than what their work actually ended up looking like, Mr Hancock said.

That, in turn, limited how courts and the Fair Work Commission could consider whether a casual worker should be permanent.

Mr Hancock said Labor was looking towards “rebalancing” workplace rights for casuals after their rights were eroded under the Coalition.

“We have a definition now of casual employment in the Fair Work Act, which says a court cannot consider the conduct of the parties after employment commences,” Mr Hancock told The New Daily.

“The minister is seeking to return us to a state of affairs where a court or tribunal can make that assessment.”

Additionally, Mr Burke hinted on Monday at introducing an ability for casual workers to appeal to the FWC if their employer denied a legal request for conversion to permanent employment.

Mr Hancock said such a move could make employers take such requests more seriously and not merely dismiss them out of hand because there would be legal recourse for workers.

Industrial battle widens

The proposed changes drew almost immediate criticism on Monday from employer groups amid an escalating battle with union leaders over the Albanese government’s workplace agenda.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar warned the latest changes would create uncertainty and make it harder to employ people.

“The employment relationship is based fundamentally on the contract that you enter into at the start of that employment relationship,” he said on Monday.

“It works for small businesses, it works for many employees. In fact, given the opportunity to convert from casual employment to permanent employment, we find that in practice, it’s only 1-2 per cent of people that make that choice.”

But Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus hit back at those arguments on Monday, saying extra rights for casuals were long overdue and wouldn’t hurt businesses.

“It’s called double-dipping, isn’t it? We’re treating casuals like permanent staff, and not giving them the benefits and the secure employment that permanent staff have,” Ms McManus said.

“There are cases where employers are doing that. They’ve got people on regular shifts, even though they are casual. But they don’t give them the benefit.”

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