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Praise and regret for the casual worker

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The value of the casual worker is being noticed now that millions of jobs have been jeopardised by the pandemic (Screenshot via YouTube)

With the changing face of our economy during the COVID-19 pandemic comes a new respect for the casual workforce, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THESE ARE THE PEOPLE who should be receiving lingering praises and appreciative hugs — well, perhaps not hugs given current health warnings, but certainly the endless praises of employers and those in positions of lofty security. They are the modern serfs who bolster empires and provide the balustrades. They mind the mess and even clean it up. And they are treated appallingly.

The very idea of this salvaging species – the casual worker – is itself offensive, suggesting a certain laziness or disposition to short stints of work. “Sessional” is an equally unsatisfactory term, conjuring up moments of temporary awareness and sentience. During the dry months, where income is low, you disappear and vanish. The central element in all of this is the fixed-term contract or a contract, if you can get one, with reduced hours.

All of this beastly inequality was present before the ravages of COVID-19. But the virus proved wrenching, sending accountants into a tizz and employers into a panicked tumble. Last month, businesses and organisations got busy clearing the decks. The hospitality industry, shackled by social distancing directives and poor patronage, began to shed numbers. Even before the last table meals were served, the Australian hospitality industry had estimated that 88,000 jobs had disappeared with 200,000 more to follow.  

In the United States, which suffers from the temporary job phenomenon all too readily, 10 million were lost in the second half of March. The scale was so stunning it had dull and sober economists recoiling in horror. “No words for this,” was the assessment of Ian Shepherdson based at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

In education – a bloated export industry – much trimming is taking place, though not of the blubber found amongst the superfluous ranks of the management heavies. In Britain, solidity is being targeted; limbs and firm timbre are being hacked off, many coming from those 50 per cent or so in precarious employment.

At Sussex University, Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell called for the firing squad, informing recipients in an email that all tutors on fixed-term contracts and agency staff were to be terminated. At Newcastle University, particularly brutal notices of redundancy from altogether inappropriately named “People Service Administrators” have been sent to academics on fixed-term contracts. Bristol University has also joined the stampede by dismissing 84 staff on temporary and short-term contracts.

The measure to save finances has moved into the very idea of teaching. The rapid adoption of “remote learning”, a term more accurate than even the apparatchiks of education realise, has presented the miserly managers in university departments further options to reduce hours and cut pay. You might still be employed, but best stick to the sodden biscuit diet. 

The idea of “attendance” and “participation” in terms of course delivery is being revised for claim payments: if it can be done online at a student’s leisure and, even better, during a session that is recorded, there is little need for multiple learning sessions. This is the apotheosis of assembly-line learning and teaching and the nadir of class learning.

The responses to the plight of the sessional worker have tended to come in the form of saving graces for an unequal system. This is not a time to alter the way we do things, it is merely a moment to suspend them. The reapplication of Keynesian economics – economic packages designed to drive aggregate demand – is not socialism at all. It is merely a holdover financed by the taxpayer, one made in hope that the virus will pass as we cross the bridge to the other side, a phrase leaders optimistically chirp about.

Even with stimulus packages being doled out across the globe to modify the damage caused by economic hibernation, qualifications are strict. In Australia, there are many congratulations in Canberra about the $130 billion package that passed both houses of Parliament. For the first time in generations, politicians were working as parliamentarians. 

This has been billed by the Treasury as the JobKeeper payment designed to ‘help keep more Australians in jobs and support businesses affected by the significant economic impact caused by the Coronavirus’.

But many will not be eligible for the $1,500 fortnightly sum, despite boastful government claims that 6 million workers will be covered. Smaller amounts will have to be sourced from the low-hanging JobSeeker payments of $1,100, subject to eligibility.

The casuals, amongst them university staff, are receiving the grandest spanking in this. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus has made the point on ABC television that 1.1 million casuals will not qualify for JobSeeker. With more than 50 per cent of university employees being casual employees, this is fiendishly grim. To get some sense of the scale of it, this means that 94,000 casual academic staff on temporary contracts will fail to meet the threshold. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has also made the picture less than rosy for potential recipients.

The JobKeeper payment, he notes, is:

‘...available to full-time and part-time workers, sole traders and casuals who have been with their employer for 12 months or more.’

The problem with casuals, certainly in the tertiary industry, is that their contracts tend to be based on semesters and terms, which are never a year. Continuous employment eludes them. 

So there you have it. The rescuers now have to be rescued, but the life rafts and rubber dinghies will fail to reach, let alone buoy, a good number of them. Pandemic or not, the situation for the precariat was always dire. COVID-19 has merely served to add more salt to suppurating wounds.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is a lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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