‘Highly disproportionate’: Australia’s casual workers bear brunt of job losses amid lockdowns

Report shows people in insecure, lower-paid positions suffered the worst of the pandemic’s employment impacts in 2021

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Casual workers bore the brunt of Australia’s Covid-19 lockdowns in 2021, with a new report finding they were eight times more likely to lose work than permanent staff.

The report by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work also found casuals were not being compensated for their “insecure” work, with median hourly wages 26% lower than permanent staff despite also lacking other entitlements like paid leave.

The report will play into political debate over whether the Coalition’s industrial relations changes are encouraging casual work in Australia and whether Covid income supports are being withdrawn too soon.

Last week, the treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced the federal government would phase out income support two weeks after each state and territory reached the 80% adult vaccination.

The Centre for Future Work paper, by director Jim Stanford, examined labour force data and found that the loss of 175,000 casual jobs from May to August represented 72% of all the jobs lost across the labour market.

Similarly, those working part-time hours – whether casual or permanent – suffered 68% of job losses between May and August, the loss of 166,000 jobs. Part-time workers were 4.5 times more likely to lose work than full-time workers.

“In every case, the job losses experienced by workers in these insecure positions were highly disproportionate to their share in overall employment,” the report said.

“As a result, the worst employment impacts of the pandemic were experienced by those already in relatively insecure, lower-income circumstances.”

In the first wave of lockdowns in 2020, when businesses were encouraged to retain staff with jobkeeper wage subsidies, casual workers suffered 62% of job losses. The report noted that casuals accounted for more than half of the jobs created between May 2020 and May 2021.

This year Sydney entered its Delta strain lockdown in late June, followed by Victoria in early August and the ACT in mid-August.

The report criticised the withdrawal of economic supports, arguing that it would “compel people back into jobs that may not be safe” and would encourage the spread of Covid because casuals lack sick leave and find it harder to isolate.

Casual workers are entitled to a loading to compensate for a lack of other permanent entitlements. But Stanford calculated that the median earnings for casuals were $28.47 an hour, 26% lower than the $38.56 a permanent workers make.

Permanent workers take home median weekly earnings of $1,300 while casuals receive $624 a week, or 52% less when their lower number of hours are factored in, the report found.

In its industrial relations policy suite announced in February, Labor promised to eliminate one source of pay disparity.

If elected Labor wants to legislate so that workers employed by a labour hire company and are performing the same job will receive the same pay as people who are directly employed by the entity in which they’re placed.

Meanwhile, the shadow industry minister, Ed Husic, on Sunday accused the Morrison government of “getting ready to race out of [income] support”, warning it not to “rip out support at a time that might hurt the economy”.

The Australian Council of Social Services chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, has said it is “unconscionable to use broad vaccination rate data as the mechanism to cut off income support to people without paid work, regardless of whether a lockdown has lifted or what the actual vaccination rates are for a range of at-risk groups”.

Last week Frydenberg said the Covid disaster payment was costing the commonwealth $1bn a week and warned that “emergency payments, like lockdowns, can’t continue indefinitely”.

He said 120,000 jobs were created between April and July after the end of jobkeeper wage subsidies, and that the government is expecting “businesses will reopen” and “people will get back to work” once restrictions are eased.

The emergency management minister, Bridget McKenzie, noted people who had lost their jobs would be eligible for jobseeker once the Covid disaster payment is phased out.

In February the Morrison government raised the permanent rate of jobseeker by $50 per fortnight while removing the temporary $550 fortnightly coronavirus supplement.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has noted that at just 29% of the average wage the unemployment benefit for a single person in Australia “is still very low by OECD standards”.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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