Here’s What You Need To Know About This Week’s Landmark Ruling On Casual Workers

Australia's 2.5 million casual workers finally got some new workplace rights.

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Millions of casual workers are most likely going to gain the right to request permanent employment after a year — a huge deal if you’ve ever experienced the limbo of waiting for your casual roster to see if you’re still employed.

The new rights were outlined in a decision released by the Fair Work Commission this week, as part of a four-yearly review of modern employment awards. The changes are only in draft form so far, and will likely be subject to modifications before coming into effect, but they’re a pretty important step in acknowledging the unfairness of conditions faced by many casual workers, who experience greater uncertainty and a smaller safety net at work. 

Unions fought pretty hard for the changes and had been hoping for even more, but were nonetheless pleased with this week’s ruling, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) calling it a “first small step towards addressing the crisis of insecure work and casualisation in Australia’s workforce”.

Nearly one in five Australian workers are casual employees, but the proportion is much higher amongst young people. Nearly 75 percent of 15-19 year old workers are casuals. Forty percent of workers aged 20-24 are casual employees.

If you’re a casual worker, the decision might mean you’ll soon have some new rights in the workplace. Here’s what you need to know:

What Are The Proposed Changes?

Basically, if you’re a casual worker who has worked hours that are pretty close to part-time or full-time hours over the course of a year, you’ll now be able to formally request that you become a full-time or part-time employee instead.

It’s not an automatic process — employers will be able to refuse the conversion for a number of reasons, including if it would require them to significantly adjust an employee’s hours, or if they can reasonably foresee a casual employee’s role changing drastically in the near future. On the whole, though, the proposed changes provide many workers with an option they didn’t have previously, which could seriously help some people reduce the precarious nature of their employment.

The Commission also ruled that employers have to, y’know, let their casual workers know these rights exist at some point in the first 12 months of employment. Unbelievably, two groups representing employers tried to oppose this part of the part of the unions’ application. In what I personally choose to read as an incredibly sassy line, the Fair Work Commission pointed out that they “consider it to be essential to the effective functioning of any casual conversion provision in an award that casual employees be made aware of their rights”.

In addition to the above changes, employers will now have to engage casual workers for a minimum of two hours at a time (while some industries already had a minimum in place, many did not). Unions pushed for a four hour minimum, but businesses pointed out that this could prevent lots of young people from working short shifts after school, so a compromise was struck at two hours.

It’s important to note that these changes don’t necessarily apply to all casual work – casuals in higher education, for example, will not receive conversion rights. If you’re unsure if the changes apply to your work, you can get in touch with the Fair Work Commission or your union. And again, given that all we currently have is a draft, details are likely to change before the laws come into effect. 

Why Does It Matter?

Conversion rights are a pretty big deal because full-time and part-time employees get a bunch of rights casuals don’t, including paid sick leave and annual leave, and more predictable working hours.

While casual workers receive a loading on top of their wage that is meant to partly account for this, unions have long been arguing that many businesses abuse the system for their own benefit, keeping effectively permanent workers in casual roles to allow for greater flexibility.  

Australian Council of Trade Unions national secretary Sally McManus said this week that access to permanent positions is crucial to “allow people to plan for the future, to get loans, to budget, and to have a decent quality of living”. The Fair Work Commission agreed, saying that “unrestricted use of casual employment without the safeguard of a casual conversion clause may operate to undermine the fairness and relevance of the safety net”, and lead to casual workers doing things like attending work while sick out of fear they will lose their jobs.

The conversion rights proposed in the draft decision are pretty limited, and there’s lots of room for employers to refuse a conversion. The important thing here is the Fair Work Commission’s acknowledgement that some casuals aren’t receiving an adequate safety net – a move that sets a precedent for greater wins for workers in future.

Why Are Some Unions Still Upset?

Of course, some groups aren’t happy with the weakness of the proposed changes. The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) in particular blasted the Fair Work Commission’s decision on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough to secure the rights of casual workers. This is partly because much of the decision is nothing new for AMWU members, who have had conversion rights since 2000.

The AMWU are among a group of unions pushing for bigger changes to be put into place to protect workers, such as allowing conversion to permanent employment after six months instead of a year, and making that conversion automatic rather than on application.

“The system is stacked in favour of employers and ordinary workers are being left behind,” AMWU President Andrew Dettmer said. “We won’t give up on the fight to make sure casuals get a better deal”.

Unions are likely to push for stronger reforms in future submissions regarding the changes, which are being accepted for next few months. We’ll bring you an update when the final legislation is released.