Casualisation of the Workforce — National Structural Issues Exposed by Covid-19 Series, Part 2
This short series of articles examines the deep, long hidden structural issues that many countries have, that have been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Previous articles in the series have looked at the Lack of Trust in Science.
Here is part two.
Casualisation of the Workforce
Over my working life there have been massive changes in the workforce and its structure. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s there was plenty of work, salaries and salary increases were good and living costs were moderate. Jump forward to today and the picture is very different.
The rise of the gig economy, as it is called, has moved many workers from full time or permanent part time employment to being employed casually. According to Gallup, 36% of US workers were involved in the gig economy in some way, either for their primary or secondary employment, in 2017. In Europe the same year the percentage is 9.7%.
Casual employment is called different things in different countries, such as temporary workers, short-term workers or replacement workers. The common factors are employment by the hour, no fixed amount of hours per week and no access to common benefits, such as holiday pay, sick leave or health benefits (when these are linked to your employer, rather than state provided). Such work is highly insecure and is often the domain of the most vulnerable members of a society.
For some people, such as independent contractors, the gig economy is a good thing and a matter of choice, bringing them control over their lives. For others it is the only work available and often leaves them under employed.
In Australia, as in most Western countries, the definition of employment is working more than one hour of paid employment. This strikes me as a very odd definition. No one can live on one or even five hours of work a week with the modern cost of living. Most countries also report an underemployment figure, of those in work who want more hours. But when it comes to normal media coverage this gets little coverage and is hardly spoken about by politicians.
To add to the issues, most Western countries have seen a significant expansion of the post high school education sector over the last 30 years. In Australia this increased access has been significant and due to changes in government policy. The cynical among us has also often felt this was at least partly driven by a desire to get people off of the unemployment statistics. This same period has seen a significant rise in the need for a post-secondary qualification for many jobs which previously had no such requirement. I’ll have more to say about this issue in another article soon.
All the above developments, plus generally rising costs of living across most the Western world and increasing international competition in many industries have made employees less certain of their employment situation. Many employers have shifted employment to a casual form. This has been highly noticeable in the university sector (more in an upcoming article), manufacturing, health, aged and disability care, transport, hospitality, entertainment and the services sector broadly. Male dominated industries have experienced particularly rapid casualisation.
Lack of income security impacts people in many ways, from increased stress to a rising likelihood of having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Casualisation and Covid-19
As Covid-19 spread around the world various countries put in place income or business support measures and large numbers of people moved onto unemployment support payments. As lockdowns occurred, the entertainment and hospitality industries took a massive hit.
In Australia, the federal government made a decision not to provide income support for most casual workers. This included international students. At the time this struck me as a particularly dangerous move. Most full and part time workers were either still working with many of these from home, or were home but still being paid and thus still having sick leave. Casuals were very vulnerable.
Many of the casual workers who were made unemployed managed to pickup other casual work in the sectors experiencing a rise in employment, such as delivery drivers, supermarkets and such. But of course, they had no sick leave and very uncertain working arrangements.
The result was predictable, much of the second wave of infections in Australia has occurred in areas dominated by casual workers. Temporary security guards, hospitality workers where still employed, aged and disability care and other casual workers with no job security were found to be the major spreaders of Covid-19. Australia has approximately 24% of workers being casual.
It turned out that aged and disability care was particularly at risk. The nature of employment in such situations meant that most workers could not reach an adequate level of income from one job. So many worked two or more jobs. Plus with no sick leave they could not afford to follow the government advice and stay home as soon as they noticed any symptoms. So if they became infected, they continued to work, and spread the disease more widely. And of course some of the most vulnerable, the aged and sick, were thus most exposed.
Given the higher rate of casualisation is the US, could this be the explanation, along with shorter periods of sick leave and poorer medical coverage even for those with full or part time employment, for the amazing spread and death rate there? In the US the delayed and confused government action seemed to make an explosive underlying situation even worse.
There are lessons to be learned from this. This is critical as there is an increased likelihood of pandemics in the future due to many factors.
While there are good reasons for business to move workers to a casual position, there are major consequences for people, the economy and society. Business profits should not be prioritised at the expense of others. All workers need adequate health care, sick leave and work security. Where it is not there, governments must provide it, especially as part of a response to a future pandemic.
All industries where casualisation are high, but particularly age and disability care, security and home care need to be carefully monitored by government and controls put in place. This should include minimum hours of work that are adequate.
Governments need to understand that economic growth is not the top priority. Their role is to provide protection and safety for their citizens, and particularly for the most vulnerable members of society. Economic and business factors must be balanced with care, protection and responsibility. A long term view must also be taken beyond the next election.
Part 3 of this series will look at the Lack of Forward Planning.
 Choi, Gisan (January 2019). “Global Gig Economy Status and Implications”. International Economy Focus (in Korean).