Australia’s largest retail industry body has rejected a renewed push by the unions to have long-term casual workers automatically converted into permanent staff.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) announced this week it would lobby the federal Labor Opposition to support changes to the Fair Work Act which would reverse “the casualisation of jobs”.
One such change would be a new definition of casual work, so it would include workers on regular shifts with a “reasonable expectation of ongoing work”.
However, restricting casual employment would only bring “further challenges” to Australian retailers who are already facing a “difficult operating environment”, according to the Australian Retailers Association (ARA).
“With the Christmas period coming to an end, and crowds of shoppers entering stores across the country during increased trading hours, the flexibility of casual retail employees is crucial,” ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman said.
“With unpredictable trading hours in the industry, retailers need to be able to add hours to staff without paying overtime penalties, especially during busy trading periods like Christmas.”
But this is a notion that worker unions strongly disagree with.
“There are too many loopholes and incentives for employers to casualise their workforce,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.
“We can and must close them. It is a shame employers don’t recognise this as a problem.”
Resistance from business groups
In July, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) made a ruling that workers, covered under 85 modern awards, had the right to request full or part-time employment status after 12 months with one employer.
Conversely, employers can refuse this request by casual worker if there are reasonable grounds.
The FWC’s decision was far less favourable that what the unions wanted — the compulsory conversion of all casual staff to permanent employees after six months of regular work with the same employer.
But leaders from the business groups believe it would be a “recipe for enormous uncertainty” if the ACTU had its way.
“The ACTU’s arguments have been run at length and rejected by the independent umpire, and now they’re trying to have another go with the political process,” said Stephen Smith, the Australian Industry Group’s head of national workplace relations policy.
“What the ACTU is trying to do is to remove the right of reasonable refusal.”
He also said, in many cases, employees want to work on a casual basis and desire more flexibility.
“There are no problems here that need to be fixed with legislative change,” he told ABC’s RN Breakfast.
But the Opposition disagrees with this view.
Labor’s employment spokesperson Brendan O’Connor told the ABC his party is assessing the definition of “casual” in the Fair Work Act.
“One of the reasons we have the lowest wage growth in this country for 20 years is because of the precarious nature of work that’s growing,” he said.
“There’s no certainty of employment — too often, people aren’t getting minimum hours, and they’re not able to get a home loan or car loan.
“Also, banks won’t give them a loan since there’s no certainty of employment, even though they have worked for a long period.”