The Minefield of Modern Labour

 

Business lobbyists, political parties, the unions and the Fair Work Commission have a massive Gordian knot to unravel. Debates about replacing Australia’s minimum wage with a living wage have focused attention on what is, or what is not, a socially acceptable income and exacerbated rowdy arguments about what is a fair go for workers in terms of casual versus permanent employment. As with all policy debates, the solution rests on a deeper understanding of the specifics; in this case the nature of casual work, not all of which is the same.

Almost one million Australians work on a freelance or project basis; that’s 8.5 per cent of the workforce, a sizeable number by anyone’s reckoning. Although that number has been steady since 2011, according to the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, civic and business leaders are slugging it out over the commercial agility that the casual employment model brings to business versus the benefits of perceived work security for workers in a completely permanent model.

The battle will go on for a lot longer and neither side will truly win given this binary approach. In the meantime, business is being demonised and enormous sums of money and time that could be spent on reaching a better outcome will continue to be wasted.

There’s no doubt casual employment has its darker side. Horror stories abound regarding the exploitation of freelance workers. And rightly, there are rules in place to protect all types of employees from unscrupulous businesses.

Despite the bad news, which inevitably gets the most airtime, thousands of businesses are out there trying to do the right thing by their casual workers. In the current environment, however, it’s increasingly difficult to know what is the right thing.

In the past 12 months the Federal Court has made a number of rulings in favour of casual workers, sending shockwaves through the business community. The rulings have created such ambiguity that business groups are urgently requesting amendments to the Fair Work Act. This lack of clarity and its systemic costs rest at the feet of policy and law makers.

In my view, what’s being ignored in this debate is the success of certain types of casual work and the changing nature of work and employment.

At Best, we’ve had a casual employee business model in place for 17 years, long before we had even heard of the so-called ‘gig economy’.

Our clients receive outcomes for a fixed price, and our field engineers, who are casual employees, receive fixed payments for performing installations and completing repairs. The median wage of one group of our engineers is right on the average wage published by the ABS in November 2018 – and that’s at the award rate. We have over 300 engineers and at least 50 per cent are earning above the average wage.

It’s not just higher incomes that casual workers enjoy, however. In the most recent survey of our field engineers they overwhelmingly told us that they work for Best, and specifically opt to work as casuals, because they have the freedom to be as productive as they like and to work when they choose.

Our engineers’ comments are backed by the evidence – being paid for everything they do makes our engineers overwhelmingly more productive: 20% more so on average, a fact that our clients greatly appreciate. Steady performers are not left behind either, as per job rates are costed to the average worker and are still well above award rates.

If engineers across Australia who are installing and repairing low level and simple IT devices can do so well, it’s no surprise that almost one million Australians are choosing to work in the same manner. It’s ironic that so many larger employers are trying to retain and attract permanent employees by emulating the upsides of casual working through flexible work hours and home-based working. Atlassian recently announced that its rolling out remote working across Australia and that these roles receive 25 per cent more applications than its office-based positions.

It seems to me that the arguments against casual working are based on rules and norms that have been in place for a hundred years or so and fail to take into account changes in the economy and demographics, communications and technology that are impacting business worldwide.

Casual working may not work for everyone or every task, but it does work for hundreds of thousands of Australians every day. So why are we allowing ambiguous legislation and obsession over often outdated rules and regulations to get in the way of good business?

The anti-casual working argument is defied by Best’s experience. This suggests that for certain types of work tasks, the casual model might be preferable for workers and for companies, the business community and society. Definable tasks that are routine, independent events and for which completion is easily verified fit well into the casual work model, as Best’s engineers show. And as our history demonstrates, it’s possible to build a business where casual staff, clients and the company are all happy with the outcomes.

The ambiguity caused by the debate and the Federal Court’s rulings is unworthy of Australia’s fair go society. It not only sucks time and money from businesses, it completely overlooks the very positive benefits of casual working for those who prefer to be employed in this way and for work that lends itself to this model.

It’s time to accept that the workplace and the labour force are changing; many Australians choose casual work over permanent employment. Best’s casual work model works, and there are other success stories out there, too. Both sides of the argument must come together to craft solutions that reflect the changing nature of modern work so our great country can grow its productivity whilst protecting workers’ rights to a fair go.

 

BEST Technology Services welcomes your thoughts and comments. To discuss any of the commentary in this article, contact John McVicker. For more on how Best Technology Services’ field services capability can support your outsourcing, go to www.best-ts.com.au.

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