How the ‘creep’ of casual and precarious work is changing our lives

From hospitality to the gig economy, the growing prevalence of casual or insecure work is leaving more Australian workers subject to instability and exploitation. The latest edition of conversation series The Mary Lee Exchange asks the question: how casual are you?

“There’s a common idea that casual work is a stopgap or a pathway to more secure work,” Gemma Beale tells The Adelaide Review. “It’s something you do while you’re young until you get the ‘sweet’ job. But we’re increasingly seeing that it’s not the case, people are doing casual work or precarious work for their whole life. That affects your ability to plan for the future in a whole new way, your ability to apply for a mortgage, or to plan for a family, or to work out what you will do if you get sick, or your mum gets sick.”

Beale, a PhD candidate at Flinders University’s Australian Industrial Transformation Institute, has spent much of her working life in and out of arts and community sectors, where she has seen firsthand the effects of unstable or casualised employment on South Australian workers. In one of her own side-hustles as co-founder of Adelaide conversation series The Mary Lee Exchange, Beale has curated discussions that encompass work, activism, family, home and community. As a recent OECD report highlighted that one in four Australian workers is a casual employee, the next installment of The Mary Lee Exchange explores the idea that you don’t have to be the victim of a MasterChef judge’s wage theft to have your life affected by contemporary Australian labor practices.

“There’s the kind of forthrightly casual, precarious work, where the things that immediately come to mind are things like Uber and other app-based jobs,” Beale explains. “And there’s a whole swathe of precarious work, stuff we’re used to like hospitality or seasonal jobs. But then there’s this gentle creep of precariousness into what prior to 10 years ago we would have considered definitely standard work. One of our panellists is a great example: she’s been on rolling casual contracts at a university for coming up on 10 years. She’s not applying for a new job, she’s just always a casual, and I think that kind of work we used to think of as normal, as 9 to 5, as ongoing and accumulating leave, is increasingly not available to a huge amount of people. Not just young people, or not just people who are under-qualified.”

Panellists at a 2017 Mary Lee Exchange (Photo: elle ds photography)
Panellists at a 2017 Mary Lee Exchange (Photo: elle ds photography)

Another panellist, Nguyet Nguyen, is a CFMEU Outworker Outreach Officer who spent two decades as a fashion industry ‘outworker’. “I think it would surprise a lot of people how much of our clothing is made in people’s rumpus rooms or sheds or lounge rooms in Australia,” Beale says of outworkers, who create garments for manufacturers that essentially outsource the traditional factory floor to the homes of workers, who typically receive few of the protections of conventionally employed workers. “It’s increasingly less so now that outsourcing overseas has become more accessible, but speaking to Nguyet she said was getting paid $4.50 per jacket which she would then see in department stores selling for $250, and if she didn’t meet the deadline for that work, not only were you not paid, but you could be fined the retail price of the item of clothing.”

Many outworkers, Beale says, are recent migrants from Vietnam and China for whom the advantages of outworking – being able to work from home and stay close to their children, and avoid workplaces that demand strong English skills – come with the risk of exploitation. But while the fashion industry has long been associated with ethically questionable labour practices, it is by no means unique.

Gemma Beale (Photo: elle ds photography)
Gemma Beale (Photo: elle ds photography)

“There’s plenty of research that shows very direct links between precarious employment and poor health outcomes, and high stress outcomes which are interrelated,” Beale says. “That’s not surprising when you think about the reality of high competition and under-employment, which means that as with outworkers – and all casual workers whether you’re a waitress, or you’re working in a store, or on Uber – you’re anxious to ever say no to work because you don’t know when you might not have work again. It creates a huge amount of pressure to take on work that you may not actually be able to do, in case in a week’s time the shifts dry up or you’re sick or something happens.”

While previous Mary Lee Exchanges have focussed on sharing stories and ideas, following the 2019 federal election Beale and co-founder Becci Love decided to be more direct, enlisting the Working Women’s Centre South Australia as a partner for the July 31 event. “We wanted a very tangible, useful outcome in addition to learning through the panel. If you’re in the audience and the things they’re talking about make you realise that you’ve got an issue with a former or current employer that you need to look into, we’ll have industrial officers there who can have a chat, take your details and maybe get an underpayment back, or pursue a harassment case or whatever it is.

“A big part of the event is what used to be called consciousness raising, it’s about things that are easy to think of as an individual experience, and realising that there’s a community around that you that might have experienced something similar, and that there’s a support network for you. Past Mary Lee exchanges have done that really well, but this one is taking that to the next step and saying, ‘no there is genuinely a service for you’. This isn’t all cerebral conversation, there are systematic problems, we’re identifying them and we’d like to help with them.”

The Mary Lee Exchange takes inspiration from South Australian social reformer and suffrage campaigner Mary Lee (Photo: State Library of South Australia B 70647)

These issues also speak to a wider social and economic issue in contemporary Australia, that is as tied to the ‘if you have a go, you’ll get a go’ rhetoric of the Prime Minister as it is our embrace as consumers of app services whose erosion of workers’ rights and redefinition of employees as subcontractors is not a bug, but a feature.

“Casualisation and all of these things are part of a broader process of individualisation, so you’re not thinking about your neighbour or your community as much as I think we should be. How important is it that I can get a pizza at any time of the day? Is it so important that I think someone shouldn’t be paid a living wage? We’ve got to think about that a little bit, and listen to workers.”

The Mary Lee Exchange: How Casual Are You?
Flinders at Victoria Square
182 Victoria Square

Wednesday, July 31

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