by Richard Brandt
Insecure. Unstable. Precarious. These are words commonly used in headlines referring to the increasing casualisation of Australia’s workforce. Although the ANZ’s job ad survey reported rises in job advertisements in February and March this year, many of these jobs were not listed as full-time. Statistics show that around 30 per cent of the Australian workforce remains employed on a flexible basis and a further eight per cent is under-employed.
But while 900,000 under-worked Australians might represent a significant under-utilisation of human resources in the economy, it is the social and psychological costs which affects individuals.
Primary school teacher Jacob Butler, 28, worked exclusively as a casual teacher for three years before obtaining a year-long temporary contract at a public school. Despite having fairly consistent work during those three years, he says working casually was stressful and that even now his future remains uncertain.
“It was tough at times, not knowing where I was going to be each day or if the phone would even ring. I had to save for my holidays and lost earnings when I was sick. Having a contract at least gives me holiday and sick pay, but this position has a finish date and I will be effectively unemployed again unless something else comes up,” he says.
Mr Butler says being employed on a short-term basis makes it difficult to plan for the future, particularly when it comes to big decisions such as buying a home.
“I try not to get caught up in the fact I am not a permanent employee. But not knowing where I’ll be year to year, it definitely makes it hard to make plans,” he says.
Mr Butler’s thoughts on short-term work are echoed by others. Figures published by The Australian Bureau of Statistics report that 52 per cent of casual workers would prefer not to work on a casual basis.
But while the rhetoric surrounding the trend is generally negative, others are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by flexible working arrangements.
Accountant Daniel Lyons, 25, has used the trend towards flexible working arrangements to begin building his own business. He says this happened largely out of necessity when a job he took close to his Surry Hills home became part-time.
“I like the company I work for and was happy to stay on in a reduced capacity,” Mr Lyons says.
“Rent in Surry Hills isn’t cheap. Working part-time wasn’t going to support my lifestyle and there weren’t many positions advertised to fill the void. I talked about my situation with friends and before long I began bookkeeping for a few people who run small businesses.
“In time, they recommended me to other people they know and things have moved forward from there. I’ve gained a few reliable clients and built myself a reputation. Now, my part-time job pays my basic bills, while my own work supports my living expenses.”
In the resources industries, such as iron ore and gold mining, there has been a trend towards contracting labour for jobs, rather than hiring in-house staff due to fluctuations in commodity prices and the Australian dollar affecting income.
Electrical engineer Dean Stobie, 30, lost his job in December last year following a slowdown in the east coast’s aluminium and copper production industries. Although companies were laying off permanent staff, Mr Stobie quickly received several offers of contract work.
“I was used to a consistent weekly income, so at first I wasn’t keen on the idea of moving to a contract arrangement. But now that it has been a few months I am enjoying it. My average weekly earnings are a lot higher and I have control over my own tax and work-related expenses,” he says.
Mr Stobie points out another benefit of going independent: he is now able to market his skills to meet demand in a range of industries, diversifying his work opportunities.
“In my industry I companies contract work out more often because they can buy a labour supply as they need it, rather than bear the cost of full-time staff who are laid off in the down times and re-hired in the upswings.
“The best part for me is that now companies in other industries, such as water supply and waste management, are interested in my skills. I am not restricted solely to mining opportunities like I was with my old firm,” he says.
Despite economists’ and politicians’ well-documented cons to non-permanent working conditions there, is no evidence to suggest the increasing trend in non-permanent work will reverse soon. It might be time for Australians to adapt by adjusting their expectations and consider the opportunities presented by flexible working arrangements to supplement their uncertain incomes.