If You Thought Employers Were Exploiting Workers With Too Many Insecure Jobs Before The Pandemic, Wait Till You See The Figures Now

by Dan Nahum

Australia paid a big price for the over reliance on insecure jobs prior to the pandemic. But as our economy recovers, insecure jobs account for about two out of every three new positions. In this commentary, originally published on New Matilda, Economist Dan Nahum explains why that’s a very bad thing – especially in front-line, human services roles. In the context of COVID-19, the effects of insecure work in these sectors, in particular, reverberate across the whole community with dangerous and tragic consequences.

COVID-19 has been reintroduced into multiple aged care homes in Victoria, in part via staff who worked in multiple locations. We have been here before, but this time, the Commonwealth government should have prevented this channel of contagion.

The poorly-managed vaccine rollout, including inexplicable delays in vaccinating aged care residents and staff, has played a key role in the current outbreak. But there is another policy factor at play as well: multi-site, insecure, and precarious work in Australia’s aged care sector.

There has been a dramatic expansion of insecure work in this sector: including more than doubling the share of part-time jobs in the last generation, a huge shift toward lower-qualified, frequently precarious personal care positions (rather than qualified and registered health workers), and the widespread use of labour hire and agencies to provide short-term labour (rather than creating permanent, stable jobs).

The recent report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety identified these precarious staffing practices as a major risk to the quality and safety of care. The Commissioners criticised the over-use of temporary or agency work, and emphasised the inextricable linkage between ‘the quality of care and the quality of jobs.’ They recommended that permanent, more stable jobs are most compatible with ‘developing a skilled, career-based, stable and engaged workforce providing high quality aged care’.

It’s not just in aged care facilities that insecure work has accelerated the spread, and magnified the consequences, of COVID-19. In fact, insecure work has generally weakened Australia’s resistance to the virus, and undermined both our health and economic responses. In aged care and beyond, precarious work enhances risks that the virus is transmitted.

Precarious jobs do not provide the training and stability to ensure that rigorous infection control measures are implemented and followed. Workers in those jobs have low and unstable incomes, and generally lack paid sick leave: the resulting economic desperation compels many of them to work, when they should be isolating. Another tragic example of the overlap between insecure work and COVID-19 contagion was the tragic failures in hotel quarantine – where a perfect storm of poor training, low wages, and insecure work clearly contributed to the virus’s escape into the community.

Precarious work is more than just casual work – it includes part-time (especially with unpredictable hours), casual, labour hire, sham contracting, and gig work. Around half of all Australian jobs embody one or more of those dimensions of insecurity.

Sick pay is unavailable in most of these roles: casual and self-employed workers have none, while even permanent part-timers accumulate only partial credits. When the pandemic hit, 37% of all employed Australians (including self-employed) had no paid sick leave entitlement. Unwell workers thus faced the economic compulsion to work when they should have stayed home.

Workers in insecure jobs experienced the lion’s share of initial job loss in the early days of the pandemic, cruelly concentrating the costs of the downturn on those who could least afford it. Casual workers lost employment eight times faster than those in permanent jobs. Part-time workers lost work three times faster than full-time workers, and insecure self-employed workers (those without incorporation or without any employees) lost work four times faster than those in more stable small businesses.

Now, however, the rebound of employment since the initial lockdowns is being dominated by a surge in insecure jobs. Casual jobs account for almost 60% of all waged jobs created since the trough of the recession. Part-time work accounts for almost two-thirds of all new jobs. And very insecure positions (including own-account contractors and ‘gigs’) account for most of the rebound in self-employment.

So without measures to improve job stability, the post-COVID labour market will clearly be dominated by insecure work – setting us up for future economic, social, and public health risks in the future.

Multiple job-holding provides further evidence that the labour market, for many people, provides only fractured, incomplete, precarious opportunity. In the December quarter of 2020, there were over a million ‘secondary jobs’ in Australia (where a person is working that job in addition to another role) – the highest in history. Secondary jobs surged by 27% from June through December 2020 (alongside other types of insecure work).

These jobs now account for 7.2% of all employment in Australia – also the highest in history. As we have tragically been reminded, multiple job holding poses enormous risks: not just on workers forced to juggle multiple positions to make ends meet, but for quality of care and public health.

Finally, the broader social and familial stresses unleashed by the pandemic have also been exacerbated by insecure work. This problem has a particularly gendered slant: women do most of the unpaid work in our society, and carrying this burden of unpaid work is made even more difficult when paid work is precarious and unreliable. Family demands do not suddenly disappear when there is an opportunity to pick up a casual shift. And for the worker, the consequences of turning down that shift can be damaging and long-term – likely leading to fewer hours subsequently offered by that employer.

Avoidable outbreaks of COVID-19 provide further proof that Australia needs to roll back precarious work, and ensure all workers have basic security, stability and entitlements.

Australia has among the highest reliance on insecure work arrangements of any industrial country. That precarity is not natural or inevitable, it is the result of deliberate policy choices. And in the wake of COVID-19, Australia should be making different ones.

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