Are Australian labour hire companies exploiting vulnerable workers?

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(Image by Gary Houston via commons.wikimedia.org)

All over Australia, labour-hire companies are big business, hiring mainly casual and temporary workers on behalf of big organisations.

The Australian Government and big businesses like mining giant Rio Tinto, contract labour-hire companies such as Serco, ISS, Sodexo or Workpac (to name just a few) to provide them with workers.

But when a duck is not a duck; a worker can end up being treated like a goose. 

The Fair Work Commission defines a casual worker as someone who isn’t guaranteed regular work hours, can be told not to come into work with minimal notice and can be permanently taken off the roster with minimal fanfare. Another way of looking at it is that it's an expendable workforce. Such conditions would probably be considered "cons" for a lot of workers — especially those looking for work stability in what is becoming a casualised workplace.

A casual worker also has the option of not working particular days, taking leave when, where and how they might like. They are also supposed to be paid more than a full-time employee in the same role, to compensate for the fact that they don’t get paid leave allowances or holiday pay. So these conditions would be considered the "pros" of being a casual worker. It's flexible, it can work well for those who are seeking flexibility over stability and a regular reliable income, and it’s generally a short-term gig.

This is all well and good — until it isn’t.

Many workers, hired as casuals by the labour-hirers, are working in full-time roles in an ongoing capacity, but they are not, by any legal definition, apart from what is written into their work contracts, "casual".

They will forego sick leave and holiday pay because it’s not something available to them. They will struggle to get bank loans because they have no guarantee of ongoing employment, they’ll experience anxiety due to the nature of their lack of job security and then they’ll potentially have to deal with a no-recourse termination if their employer no longer wants them.

I was hired as a casual by Workpac and I went to work for Rio Tinto. I worked the same hours as a Rio Tinto worker, I travelled on the same bus to and from the workplace, and I did exactly the same work as a Rio Tinto employee. My roster was the same, week in week out, not subject to any alteration at all and there was never any question that it would be. But I was paid a fraction of what a Rio Tinto worker was for doing the same job.

I knew of other labour-hire staff who came into the position with a lot more experience than I, who were being paid the same as me and had been in their roles for years. They were still casual, still without any job security or additional worker benefits, though we were granted the absolute insult of being made to sit in employee meetings that outlined the bonuses being paid to the Rio workers. Yeah, thanks for that!

As fellow human beings who care about the interests of others within society, we need to be asking questions about the practice of why one company employs another company to employ their workers for them? And if this sounds confusing, trust me as a worker who was employed under these conditions by Workpac, it is.

Why would the Department of Human Services contract a company like Serco to employ staff to work for Centrelink, instead of hiring the workers themselves? There’s so much additional double-handling, it seems almost absurd.

Here’s an example of why. Let's say Rio Tinto has another share price plummet — let's use what happened a few years back when the price of iron ore fell, as that example. Rio Tinto set about cutting costs immediately. Staff cuts were implemented. It’s an expensive thing to get rid of workers with entitlements who – through no fault of their own – need to be sacked, redundancy packages were rumoured to be upward of $100,000 per person.

Now imagine the same scenario but with a labour-hire company in charge of all your employees — a completely separate organisation responsible for firing staff and the hassle of anything else worker-related. A perfectly legal way of side-stepping the usual employee-employer relationships, such as contracts, mutual obligations, job security and just basic decency.

A legalised way for companies and governments to shirk their responsibilities to their workers. A practice that is duplicitous by nature and the most disingenuous way for employers to legally take advantage of an increasingly vulnerable workforce. No more pesky worker entitlements — Gina Rinehart would be proud.

And the other question that begs to be answered is, why do workers put up with these conditions?

The jobs market has been a tough one in Western Australia (and elsewhere). The iron-ore price crash led to redundancies across the mining industry which led to unemployment, underemployment and bankruptcies. This had a flow-on effect that touched many other industries too. Restaurants, clothing and other retail outlets suffered too when people stopped spending. Work was and is for those still looking, hard to find. So when a job is offered and things are getting a bit desperate at home and there’s a lot of competition for the position but it’s a casual position, someone is going take it — even though they probably know they’re being denied conditions that were routinely afforded to all workers not even a generation ago.

Then there are other workers who are not even aware that they are being denied. Is this the Australia we have become? The "let's take advantage of the vulnerable" country? We were looking for a new national anthem anyway, right? I wonder which verse we’ll include? Perhaps, we once were a more egalitarian society (if you ignore what we did to anyone other than whites)?

One vicarious Rio Tinto worker – who had been hired by Workpac – challenged his casual status after being terminated from a position he held for two and a half years. In the case, Workpac v Skene, the full Federal Court of Australia, whose job it is is to interpret the law – not some self-interested employer mob like the Australian Industry Group, who, I’d like to add, were quoted as saying the judgment was "disappointing" – agreed with Skene that his work history had not been casual in nature and that he should, therefore, be paid entitlements. Both the AIG and the ACTU are seeking clarification.

The AIG saying that the employee was double-dipping by being paid extra as a casual and now getting holiday entitlements. Thus the need for clarification: if Skene was paid in the same way I was paid, he would not have been paid above that of a full-time worker on this site. He would have been paid considerably less, so there would be no double-dipping.

The AIG’s one-sided comments, when put into context, just seem like more subterfuge and feigned indignation from an over-indulged group who, in this case, supported some recalcitrant miscreants.

Skene called the so-called duck out. Just because it looked, waddled and quacked like a duck that did not make it so. So, who’s the goose now?

Corinna Elaine is a journalist.

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