Defining 'insecure and precarious work'
There is no single definition of 'insecure and precarious work'. However, the definition employed for the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) 2012 independent inquiry into insecure work in Australia provides an excellent starting point.
In 2012 the ACTU commissioned a panel led by the Hon Brian Howe AO, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, to conduct an inquiry into the extent, causes and impacts of insecure work. For the purposes of that inquiry, 'insecure work' was defined as 'that which provides workers with little social and economic security and little control over their working lives'.
While the panel acknowledged that any worker can experience insecurity from time to time, the inquiry focussed on forms of employment considered to be 'prone to insecure work, including casual work, fixed‑term contracts, seasonal work, contracting and labour hire'. It also looked at part‑time work, which is not always insecure, but can be. The 'indicators of insecure work' utilised by the panel for the independent inquiry were:
unpredictable, fluctuating pay;
inferior rights and entitlements, including limited or no access to paid leave;
irregular and unpredictable working hours, or working hours that, although regular, are too long or too few and/or nonsocial or fragmented;
lack of security and/or uncertainty over the length of the job; and
lack of voice at work on wages, conditions and work organisation.
This report draws on the above definition, while acknowledging that submitters and witnesses who participated in the inquiry may have defined insecure work in other ways.
Conduct of the inquiry
The Senate Select Committee on Job Security (the committee) was appointed by resolution of the Senate on 10 December 2020. The committee was established to inquire into and report on the impact of insecure or precarious employment on the economy, wages, social cohesion and workplace rights and conditions.
It was the committee's intention to conduct hearings in capital cities and regional areas across Australia over the course of 2021. While the committee was able to travel to Sydney, Wollongong and Melbourne early in 2021, the ability to travel for further public hearings was hampered by outbreaks of COVID-19 and associated lockdowns from June onwards.
Technology enabled the committee to hear remotely from workers, employers, industry bodies and non-government organisations, and local community groups in a number of jurisdictions—from Central Queensland and Northern New South Wales, to Western Australia and Tasmania.
A brief reprieve before Omicron impacted in earnest saw the committee travel to Newcastle, where it met with casual teaching staff, aged care workers, representatives from the mining sector and other industries.
By the conclusion of the inquiry, the committee had held 26 public hearings with over 300 witnesses, and published 230 submissions, including a number from individual workers who shared their stories of insecure work.
Through its hearings, the committee collected a broad range of evidence from workers and employers, unions, experts and industry bodies. The committee also held six in‑camera hearings, during which it heard evidence from workers on a confidential basis.
The committee sincerely thanks all submitters and witnesses for their input to the inquiry, especially those who shared their personal stories of insecure work.
Additional information—especially on rates of pay and conditions, and the workforce management practices of large employers and government agencies—was collected through questions on notice. The committee published 146 responses to questions on notice, representing almost 1000 individual questions. These responses, along with tabled documents and other additional information, are published on the committee's website.
The committee acknowledges the time, effort and resources that organisations put into responding to these questions and providing this critical information.
Matters of parliamentary privilege
Parliamentary privilege refers to the privileges and immunities of the Houses of the Parliament, including the Senate, which 'protect the integrity of their processes', and enable the Houses to perform their functions. These privileges and immunities are extended to Parliamentary committees when they are conducting parliamentary business.
A number of issues arose during the course of the inquiry that gave rise to consideration of matters of parliamentary privilege, including:
a number of precariously-employed workers seeking to give evidence without disclosing their identities, owing to a fear of retribution from their employers; and
the need to compel the attendance of a number of reluctant witnesses.
Limitations of the protections of privilege: vulnerable witnesses
Parliamentary privilege provides that Members of the Houses and other participants in proceedings in Parliament, including witnesses giving evidence before committees, enjoy certain immunities. The most well-known of these is the immunity from impeachment or questioning in the courts for anything said during Parliamentary proceedings, including committee hearings.
Privilege also grants certain powers to the Senate and its committees, including the power to conduct inquiries and to call for persons and documents. To protect this power, section 12 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 makes it a criminal offence, punishable by a fine or imprisonment, to 'interfere with a parliamentary witness', including by disadvantaging a witness for giving evidence.
While the Senate takes any reports of such interference or disadvantage seriously, and will investigate all substantiated reports, proving such interference can be difficult.
During this inquiry, the committee took evidence from a number of individual workers in precarious and insecure employment. While those workers were entitled to the protections of the Senate, the committee was conscious that, if a worker was to lose their job, proving it was related to their participation in the inquiry would be particularly difficult.
While it was the committee's preference to take all evidence in public and using real names, the committee made an exception to protect the identities of some workers. Authorising the publication of in-camera evidence after‑the‑fact, and the judicious use of pseudonyms, allowed the committee to place valuable evidence on the record without risking the livelihood of these already vulnerable and precarious workers.
Possible privilege matter: seasonal workers
A number of seasonal workers gave evidence at a public hearing in Canberra on 2 February 2022. After this hearing, the committee received correspondence alleging that a number of witnesses who appeared at the public hearing may have been disadvantaged by their employer on account of giving evidence to the committee.
The committee wrote to the employer on Wednesday 9 February 2022 informing the company of the protections afforded to witnesses who appear before committees and seeking an explanation in relation to the alleged conduct.
The committee is due to table its final report and conclude its activities by the last sitting day in February 2022, which is Thursday 10 February 2022. As the matters described above have been drawn to the committee's attention so close to the reporting date, the committee has been unable to conclude its inquiry into these issues.
The committee notes that, under Senate Privilege Resolution 1(18), it has a responsibility to examine the matters raised in relation to these workers and report its findings to the Senate:
Where a committee has any reason to believe that any person has been improperly influenced in respect of evidence which may be given before the committee, or has been subjected to or threatened with any penalty or injury in respect of any evidence given, the committee shall take all reasonable steps to ascertain the facts of the matter. Where the committee considers that the facts disclose that a person may have been improperly influenced or subjected to or threatened with penalty or injury in respect of evidence which may be or has been given before the committee, the committee shall report the facts and its conclusions to the Senate.
Whilst the committee presents its final substantive report today, it has formed the view that the matters raised above in relation to possible disadvantage suffered by witnesses as a result of the evidence they provided to the committee warrants a short extension of time. If agreed, the committee intends to conduct a targeted inquiry into these possible privilege matters before finally reporting to the Senate.
The committee recommends that the Senate adopt the following resolution:
That the time for the presentation of the final report of the Select Committee on Job Security be extended to 30 March 2022, so that the committee may inquire into possible privilege matters, including to:
investigate allegations raised in relation to the treatment of seasonal workers who gave evidence at the committee's public hearing on 2 February 2022;
ascertain the facts in the matter; and
report any findings to the Senate.
Invoking the power to compel: reluctant witnesses
Senate committees have the power, conferred by section 49 of the Australian Constitution, to require the attendance of persons and the production of documents, and to take evidence under oath.
However, the Senate also has range of practices designed to safeguard the rights of witnesses, contained in its Privilege Resolutions. The first of these resolutions provides a code of procedures for Senate committees to follow for the protection of witnesses.
The procedures for the protection of witnesses stipulates that witnesses 'shall be invited to attend a committee meeting to give evidence', and 'shall be summoned … only where the committee has made a decision that the circumstances warrant the issue of a summons'.
Over the course of the inquiry, the committee encountered a number of companies and organisations that did not want to attend a public hearing and, as such, declined the committee's invitation.
This was disappointing considering the modest commitment of time and resources the committee was requesting—generally a 45 minute appearance— and the critical importance of job security across all industry sectors in 2021.
Committee members shared a belief in the Senate's pivotal role in Australia's democracy and the need for the inquiry to be balanced, including through hearing evidence from both employers and employees.
Committee members were in agreement that employers—including private companies—should attend hearings and participate in the inquiry as a matter of principle. The committee was willing to draw upon the summons power, but preferred to persuade witnesses of the merits of attending voluntarily.
A number of witnesses who had originally been reluctant to attend chose to do so after discussions, and participated fully during the hearings. Following a rigorous process, the few who remained opposed were issued with orders to attend, and did so, generally providing useful evidence.
While this represents a good outcome overall, it is unfortunate that the committee had to compel any witness, let alone multiple witnesses.
As Odgers' Australian Senate Practice states, the power of the Senate to conduct inquiries into 'matters of concern' is an essential part of Australia's democracy, and a 'necessary preliminary to debating those matters and legislating in respect of them'. The power to conduct inquiries and, by extension, to insist upon the attendance of witnesses, has 'long been regarded as essential for a legislature'.
All Australians should value their democracy and the role their Senate and its committees play in scrutinising legislation and government policies and administration, and in exploring options for reform.
On 24 June 2021, the committee tabled its first interim report, On-demand platform work in Australia, which considered employment arrangements in the gig economy, the adequacy of existing legislative and policy approaches and a number of proposed options for reforms.
On 19 October 2021, the committee tabled its second interim report, Insecurity in publicly-funded jobs. This report presented detailed sector studies into aged care, higher education and the Australian Public Service (APS), and looked at the issue of Commonwealth procurement and job security.
On 30 November 2021, the committee tabled its third interim report, Labour hire and contracting. This report looked at the increasing use of labour hire and contracting arrangements across a number of industries including mining, agriculture and the transport sectors.
Extension of time to report
The committee agreed to seek an extension of time to report until the last sitting day in February 2022 to allow time for further consideration of evidence and report drafting. On 19 October 2021, the Senate agreed to the committee's request for an extension.
This report is the committee's final substantive report. It covers a wide range of issues relating to insecure and precarious work—but it is not comprehensive.
The committee recognises that the topics and sectors covered in this report are not the only subjects worthy of discussion in relation to insecure work. Nor was the committee able to cover all of the evidence collected over the course of the inquiry.
Given more time, the committee would have liked to delve into more employment sectors, spoken with workers across more occupations, and would likely have published additional interim reports. However, time and resources were limited.
That said, in this report, the committee has been able to bring together evidence on a number of remaining issues, including—critically—casual work and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on job security. It has explored two of the most insecure sectors in the economy: retail and hospitality.
This report also returns to the issue of on-demand platform work, reviewing and refining the committee's earlier recommendations, and revisits the issue of job security in publicly-funded jobs.
Responding to the core question—is insecure and precarious work increasing in Australia?—this report concludes by considering options for increasing job security, and for reversing the trend towards insecure work that has dominated the last four or five decades of our history.
Structure of this report
Chapter 1, the introduction, includes: definitions, conduct of the inquiry and the structure of the report.
Part 1: The prevalence and effects of insecure work.
Chapter 2, 'The growth in insecure work', presents evidence to show that insecure and precarious work have increased and are increasing. The chapter looks at the major categories and key indicators of insecure work, then addresses the inadequacy of current data and statistics. The committee's view and recommendations conclude the chapter.
Chapter 3, 'Health and wellbeing impacts', presents empirical evidence that insecure work is harmful to health and well‑being, looking at impacts on mental and physical health, relationships and families, and social connection. The chapter includes personal stories from submitters and witnesses, and finishes with the committee's views and recommendations.
Part 2: Casual work in Australia – the largest category of insecure work
Chapter 4, 'Casual work: definitions, demographics and regulation', includes definitions of casual work, key demographics and information on current regulation and policy, including casual conversion.
Chapter 5, 'Key sectors: retail and hospitality', provides brief sector studies of two of the most casualised and precarious sectors in the economy.
Chapter 6, 'Insecure work and COVID-19', discusses the impacts of the pandemic on casual and other insecure workers, along with impacts on women, young people and migrants. The chapter looks at the outcomes of government payments and initiatives, and how insecure work contributed to the spread of COVID-19.
Chapter 7, 'Casual work: proposals for reform', considers arguments for and against reducing the use of casual work in the Australian economy, and looks at options for regulatory reform. The committee's view and recommendations conclude the chapter.
Part 3: The future of work in Australia
Chapter 8, 'Challenging Uberisation and the Amazon effect' considers responses to committee's first interim report on the need to regulate the on‑demand platform sector and reduce its impacts on other employment sectors. As well as new evidence and additional recommendations, the chapter includes discussion and refinement of recommendations from the committee's first interim report.
Chapter 9, 'Restoring security in publicly-funded jobs', is primarily focussed on the impact of on-demand platforms in the disability and wider care sectors. The chapter looks at some new evidence, makes new recommendations, and includes discussion and refinement of recommendations from the committee's first interim report.
Chapter 10, 'Reversing the trend towards insecure work: policy options', begins by addressing arguments against reform, before considering a number of options for reforming Australia's industrial relations regime so that it can better support secure jobs.
Chapter 11, 'Conclusions and final recommendations', builds on Chapter 10, by presenting the committee's concluding remarks and remaining recommendations.