One of the government’s five industrial relations reform working groups will focus on casuals, with Attorney-General Christian Porter saying the court judgment had created “urgent” problems.
He said last week part of negotiations with employers and unions would be “around the issue of casual conversion and a greater clarity and certainty and universality to that right of request [to permanent work]”.
That could form the basis of a trade-off with employers’ demands for the government to reverse the Federal Court’s judgment and deem anyone a casual if they are paid a loading and called one, along with a right to ask for permanent work.
Giving casuals a right to become permanent workers — which is different from a right to request to become permanent — has been a priority of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Mr Porter’s primary negotiating partner.
Most of Australia’s 2.6 million casuals have a legal right to ask for permanent employment after 12 months, which their bosses are allowed to refuse on set grounds.
The Australian Workers Union’s national secretary Daniel Walton, who represents workers in several heavy and agricultural industries, said giving employees a right to request was a “phoney” move that did not go far enough.
“It’s nigh on impossible to enforce in practice,” Mr Walton said. “It should be rejected by any legislator looking for serious solutions.”
The mining union’s legal director Alex Bukarica said if employers were allowed to employ casuals on full time hours for long periods it would make it harder for them to push for better conditions.
“Economically it makes workers even more unequal in their relationship with their employer because their capacity to bargain, ask for more, is fundamentally compromised if the employer can get rid of you with half an hour’s notice,” Mr Bukarica said.
The unions’ position underscores the difficulty the Morrison government faces in its bid to create consensus on industrial relations reform.
A survey from the Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association of Australia, which represents labour hire companies, of 150 companies in the industry that collectively employ 125,492 casual workers found only four per chose to convert to permanent work last year.
Charles Cameron, the association’s chief executive, said most labour hire workers were not in traditional heavy industries and valued the flexibility and pay of casual work. But he said he would “probably have no problem” with all workers being given a right to ask for permanent work.
“Unions are a big business and it suits the business model to have people who don’t move,” Mr Charles said.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.