Shift workers seeking roster justice to regain control of lives

Knowing when you’re working isn’t just about clocking in, it’s about managing life – something millions of Australians struggle with because of unpredictable rosters
Shift workers often have to prioritise their work over their private lives without roster justice.

Shift workers often have to prioritise their work over their private lives without roster justice. Photo: Getty

About one in five Aussies are employed in shift work, and for many this means they’re exposed to rosters that can change from week to week or at short notice.

It’s a pain point felt by workers whether casual, part-time or permanent, and across industries including health, retail, hospitality, mining, tourism, emergency serves and many more.

Not knowing when, for how long, or even if they’ll be working in the week ahead means workers have very little control over how they plan their lives.

“Roster unpredictability has an enormous impact on our members,” SDA director of industrial policy Katie Biddlestone said.

It means they can’t budget if they’re uncertain how much they’ll earn. They can’t organise care if they don’t know when it will be needed, and they can’t commit to social engagements if there’s a chance they may be called in to work at any time.

Those hoping to make ends meet amid rising cost-of-living pressures by taking on a second job also find it difficult to do so as they are never certain when they will be available.

“Our members live in low-income households – 52 per cent have a post-tax income of less than $1000 per week,” Biddlestone said.

“Our research shows [roster unpredictability] has an impact on the safety and health of workers and their families, creating ongoing stress as they have to constantly juggle changes in rosters and how they manage care.”

The push for roster justice

The ACTU has recently called for roster justice to highlight the effect unfair work schedules can have on employees and argued workers should be able to bring rostering disputes to the Fair Work Commission.

“Roster justice is an issue many working parents face when it comes to juggling work and family life,” ACTU president Michele O’Neil said.

“Employer groups want to have the power to force workers to turn up at any point they want, regardless of the disruption that causes to their lives.

“Last-minute changes to rostering discriminate against workers with caring responsibilities and freezes them out of industries where that is common practice.”

The unpredictability of work rosters can have debilitating effects on an employee’s work-life balance.

What exactly is roster justice?

Roster justice means creating a system where rostered workers have some control over their life the same way a regular 9-5 employee would, CPSU industrial officer Lisa Pearce said.

“What we’re seeing now is roster injustice, based on the premise that employers are more and more saying the needs of the business come first, therefore the planning of your life comes second,” Pearce said.

“CPSU represent mobile traffic camera operators.

“Their employer, Serco, contracts them for a minimum of 18 hours a week and their roster continuously changes, so they are unable to get a second job.

“At 18 hours a week, they can actually qualify for Centrelink as well, the wage is so low.”

How can work rostering be improved?

Pearce believes it would not be difficult for employers to manage their rostering system in a way that gives workers certainty over when they will be required.

“Most businesses know when their peaks and troughs are,” Pearce said.

“If we think about hospitality – we know nearly everyone is going to be expected to work over a long weekend, so you would be planning out your shifts accordingly with your employees. And from there, you’re able to fill the gaps.”

Pearce says it’s good business practice to have roster committees involving employee and management representatives to develop a work schedule that can best accommodate everyone.

“It’s when you have that really good handshake type of approach to rostering and how people come together, is when things work really well,” Pearce said.

“Nothing’s ever perfect, but at least then what we’ve got is something closer to being perfect.”

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