‘An erosion of part-time work’: Labor opens new front in job security debate

Labor will go to the next election vowing to address what it views as increasingly uncertain hours for part-time staff in an attempt to help workers, especially women, balance family and employment responsibilities.

Employers in industries such as fast food and retail are allowed to vary part-time workers’ shifts by agreement via text or email without generally paying overtime if hours increase or the typical 20 or 25 per cent pay boost casuals receive.

Labor’s Tony Burke, who led the party’s fight against the government’s industrial overhaul earlier this year, is now hinting at more of Labor’s workplace agenda.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Since when did part-time work become so close to casual work yet without the benefits of casual loadings?” Labor’s industrial relations spokesman, Tony Burke, will say at an industrial relations conference on Friday, according to speaking notes seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“The benefit of part-time work and the reason so many women in particular are attracted to part-time work is for the predictability of hours and pay to allow them to manage the other responsibilities, which too often fall unevenly on women.

“Instead we are now seeing an erosion and degradation of permanent part-time work which potentially sees these workers worse off than a casual employee. There is a place for flexibility but insecurity is out of control. Part-timers need more rights and we are working on this right now.”

Among the models Labor is looking at are measures in some industry agreements that let part-timers who are consistently doing more hours than their contracts state move up to that as a baseline after a set period of time.

The party believes more predictable hours means workers, and especially women who take on a disproportionate share of family responsibilities, will be able to plan their jobs around other commitments.

Employers have long argued that part-time employment offers more security and reliability of hours than casual roles, and letting staff take on more shifts can be a bonus for people short on work. Unions have also championed part-time work as more secure than casual jobs, where employees have no guaranteed hours.

The Fair Work Commission, which is the independent body that oversees Australia’s industrial rules and is led by a Labor appointee, changed the retail industry award earlier this year to clarify that shifts can be changed by agreement to give part-timers different hours. It also imposed a rule that lets employees request to have their higher hours made permanent, subject to conditions.

The government’s industrial relations bill, which was largely voted down in the Senate earlier this year, included provisions allowing workers to take on more shifts without overtime, which it described as flexibility that would help both staff and businesses.

Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Michaelia Cash will also be addressing the Australian Labour and Employment Relations Association conference, which is being held virtually on Friday.

She will champion the economy’s performance throughout the coronavirus pandemic, praise employers and employees for collaborating, and highlight government investment to help employers comply with pay rules through technology.

“There is no doubt that some sectors, such as hospitality, retail and tourism, have been hit particularly hard through the pandemic,” Senator Cash will say. “Yet throughout this period, with employers and employees coming together to navigate the crisis we have seen incredible innovation.”

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