Experts from the Australian National University criticised the Commonwealth Fair Work Amendment Bill 2020 this week, warning it could spark more public health emergencies, with people in insecure work the worst affected.
In a submission to the Senate Committee, nine ANU experts argued the Bill would cause an increase in casual employment and insecure working conditions which, combined with a lack of access to paid sick leave, would exacerbate the risk of virus transmission.
Essential workers and young Australians were identified as the two key groups to bear the brunt of “profoundly negative” repercussions were the Bill to pass without amendments.
In December, a statement from Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, described the Bill as the most substantial reforms to Australia’s industrial system since the Fair Work Act was introduced in 2009.
Mr Porter said the reforms were not radical or driven by ideology, and they were developed after extensive consultation with employer and employee groups.
Submission co-author Associate Professor Kamalini Lokuge said evidence showed the changes proposed in the act posed an immediate threat to public health.
“Under these conditions, highly at-risk workers will not be able to follow necessary health recommendations such as isolating when unwell or quarantining while awaiting results,” she said.
The submission called for innovative reforms like paid “flu leave days” to protect casual and insecure workers and, in turn, the wider Australian community.
Australia has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements among 37 OECD nations, with estimates ranging from 25% to 37%.
Co-author Professor Emily Banks said casual workers in Australia were twice affected by the pandemic, due to both the absence of leave entitlements and by being among the lowest paid and most insecure workers.
The experts called for the removal of aspects of the proposed amendment that would promote insecure work, which should be replaced with provisions that strengthen security and protections for employees.
Young workers to be disproportionately impacted
Professor Banks drew attention to the fact young Australian adults have the highest rates of COVID-19.
“Increasing insecure work amongst young adults is likely to further increase risks of transmission, and the disproportionate social and economic burden they are asked to bear.”
This rang true for ANU Student Association (ANUSA) education officer Madeleine Chia, who also made a submission to the Senate Committee, to advocate for herself and her peers.
Ms Chia is a 19-year-old casual worker who lost her job and income for the duration of 2020.
“A lot of my friends are also casual workers; I think I only have about two friends who are part-time workers,” she said.
“We weren’t able to get on JobKeeper, so that really impacted us as students who are trying to pay for accommodation, food, and basically just maintaining the basic standard of living.”
In her submission, Ms Chia argued the Bill would lead to casual work being the “default of the future”.
“These proposed changes state that if the status ‘casual’ is marked in your contract, you will not be entitled to leave and other benefits such as a notice of termination or redundancy,” she wrote.
“This loophole will provide an incentive for businesses to make more jobs casual in the future.”
She argued the Government’s proposed changes gave employers the power to force through Workplace Agreements that may contain lower rates of pay, cut penalty rates and cut conditions like guaranteed minimum shift hours.
Ms Chia told Canberra Weekly about her experience of casual work, which involved forced unpaid overtime and feeling pressured to work when she was sick.
“When I was working at a retail story in Sydney, I was forced to work overtime – three hours of overtime every Monday – and they would refuse to pay us for that because they said they didn’t have the money in the budget for it.”
According to the Young Workers Centre at UnionsACT, which conducted detailed, ACT-wide surveys of young workers over the past three years, wage-theft is “widespread and systemic” in Canberra.
The surveys indicated half of all young workers in the ACT had wages stolen each year and one third of young workers were working in unsafe conditions.
The Young Workers Centre submission on the Bill said research showed that, for fear of losing their job, young people in insecure work were often too afraid to raise concerns about exploitation, wage-theft and unsafe conditions at work.
Ms Chia said she felt a lot of pressure to show up to work even if she was unwell, and she had many friends who felt the same way.
“Because it’s almost like a privilege to be given hours as a casual worker, because it’s such insecure work.”
Two years ago, Ms Chia was hospitalised and felt she had no choice but to show up for her shift after being discharged.
“I actually still went to work later that day because I didn’t want to annoy my boss,” she said.
“There’s also the stigma around getting a replacement to come in for you, and you don’t really want to hassle the place you work because, like I said, it’s a privilege to work there and a privilege to be given those hours.”
Ms Chia said employees who called in sick were often met with suspicion by employers, asked to come in anyway, or risked having future shifts cut.
“If you were sick or unwell, they would push you, and there’s a lot of pressure because it’s too late to find a replacement.
“But I guess that’s the trade-off with casual work for big businesses.
“If the amendment was to pass, then it just gives more power to the bosses to make sure that casual workers have no rights whatsoever.”
The Education and Employment Legislation Committee is set to report on its inquiry into the provisions of the Bill by 12 March 2021.