COVID-19 laid bare the impacts of insecure work. All over Australia, it was those in precarious and insecure work who were hardest hit by the pandemic, and also most likely to become infected and spread the virus.
As summarised by the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute (the Centre for Future Work) in their report Shock Troops of the Pandemic: Casual and Insecure Work in COVID and Beyond:
The expansion of casual and insecure work reflects a very one-sided vision of 'flexibility.' Employers can hire and fire labour precisely when it is needed. But the risks and costs of the resulting instability in employment are shifted onto the backs of workers who can least afford it. This has been harshly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic: most job losses have been incurred by workers whose hours, wages and entitlements were already inadequate, long before the virus arrived. The resulting hardship and polarisation from the overuse of casual and insecure work arrangements will hold back Australia's recovery for many years to come.
This chapter looks at the impacts of employment arrangements on people's experience of the pandemic. The committee heard recurring evidence that the risks associated with insecure work, and particularly casual work, were exacerbated and exposed by the pandemic. This chapter considers the extent of this with regard to:
gendered effects of the pandemic;
impacts on other cohorts, such as migrants and young workers;
the spread of COVID-19 and insecure work; and
outcomes of Federal and state government financial supplements.
Key data and statistics
While all categories of work have been affected to some degree during the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of job losses, disadvantage and upheaval have been experienced by casual employees.
To curb the effect of COVID-19, state mandated lockdowns were implemented at various stages throughout 2020 and 2021. Nearly 600 000 Australians lost their jobs in early 2020 as a result of these lockdowns—the largest on record since the Labour Force Survey commenced in 1978. It was argued during the inquiry that the impact of the lockdowns was vastly disproportionate, with job losses being most severe in positions that were casual and part time. This is supported by research conducted by the McKell Institute Victoria, which submitted that:
Between the February and May 2020 quarterly labour force surveys, the number of employees without paid leave (casuals) dropped by 20 per cent, while the reduction for those with paid leave (permanents) dropped by just two and half per cent.
The Centre for Future Work also submitted estimates quantifying the effect of lockdowns upon the workforce and pointed out that the impact of lockdowns on other categories of insecure work were also significant, with 12.8 per cent of part-time employees losing their jobs over the same duration.
Figure 6.1 illustrates the disparity in the composition of job-losses due to the first lockdown as well as employment recovery by November 2020. By November, casual employment had recovered significantly, but still remained 5 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. According to the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), this recovery 'underscores the flexible nature' of casual employment.
Figure 6.1: Changes in employment for casuals, permanent employees and owner-managers in 2020
Source: Ai Group, Submission 77, p. 7.
However, job losses were not permanent. As job growth occurred between major lockdown periods, casual jobs accounted for over half of all jobs recovered, and part-time jobs accounted for almost 60 per cent.
The Centre for Future Work's October 2021 report quantified the impact of the 2021 delta-strain lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and the ACT. Its analysis of quarterly data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) indicated a clear continuation in the trend of job losses in 2020. Workers in casual jobs were eight times more likely than those in permanent positions to experience job loss during the 2021 lockdowns. In fact, the report concluded that the concentration of job loss among insecure workers had become more severe as the pandemic has progressed.
In early 2022, the Omicron coronavirus variant is widespread within the Australian community. While it will be some time until labour market impacts are able to be quantified, anecdotal evidence suggests that Omicron is again particularly affecting those in casual and insecure positions.
Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Ms Sally McManus, made the following comment:
Some employers are responding by pressuring Covid-positive people to work, others have not changed safety measures despite the more infectious nature of Omicron, workers are sick, many now without income and there is a serious lack of national leadership.
Between March and October 2020, job loss as a percentage of jobs in any sector was greatest in accommodation and food services, and arts and recreation, down 17.4 per cent and 12.9 per cent respectively. Other industries that suffered relatively high job losses included agriculture, forestry and fishing (8.1 per cent), and information media and telecommunications (9.5 per cent).
These industries tend to be low-income and heavily concentrated with casual workers. However, not all industries with significant losses were low-income. As previously discussed in this inquiry, job losses in higher education have been significant, with one-in-five employees losing their job between May 2020–21.
Due to the length and frequency of lockdowns, some of these job losses were more extreme in some states than in others. Pre-pandemic, approximately one‑third of workers in the City of Melbourne were employed on a part-time, casual or contract basis, with these roles concentrated in the arts and recreation services, and accommodation and food services industries. Figure 6.2 depicts the difference between Victorian and Australian job losses in these two sectors from March to August 2020, with the Victorian experience being notably more severe.
Figure 6.2: Difference between Victoria and Australian job losses (baseline), 14 March to 8 August 2020
The committee queried the impacts of lockdowns on specific demographics, including women, young people, and migrants. It was revealed that all three groups were significantly affected by COVID-19 due to their over‑representation in casual and insecure positions.
Women suffered job loss at a higher rate than men during the COVID lockdowns. At the peak in April 2020, almost 8 per cent of Australian women had lost their jobs, and women's total hours worked were down 12 per cent— the corresponding figures for men were only 4 per cent and 7 per cent. This is not surprising as women were disproportionately employed in the sectors hit hardest by COVID-19 shutdowns, such as retail, hospitality, health care, and education—as demonstrated in Figure 6.3.
Figure 6.3: The two worst-affected industries in the first lockdown were majority-female employers
Source: Grattan Institute, 'Women's work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women' March 2021, p. 10.
Some Australian states fared worse than others, for example women comprised 83 per cent of all job losses in Victoria during 2020, compared to 61 per cent nationally.
Despite this fact, more recipients of the Government's JobKeeper wage subsidy were men. The Grattan Institute concluded that the pandemic has 'compounded existing economic disadvantage for women'. Research by the Grattan Institute estimated that:
If a typical young woman lost income for just six months during the COVID recession, this could translate to losing more than $100,000 in earnings over her lifetime, a 6 per cent increase on the already substantial earnings gap.
Socioeconomic challenges for women were also more pronounced. Research from Ms Lyn Craig and Mr Brendan Churchill found that while 'there was more gender equality, of a sort' overall, women found it harder to balance paid work with family obligations throughout the shutdowns.
Dr Kathy MacDermott, a member of the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW), said that as a result of this difficulty, many women have 'either withdrawn from work altogether, reduced their hours or not gone for promotions to higher-level positions—that is, the pressure from the primary carer end decreased the secondary earner's scope for workforce security'.
In their submission, the NFAW elaborated:
… the combination of massive increases to unpaid caring and domestic work, predominantly shouldered by women, the greater harm to women's workforce engagement due to their forms of work and sectors in which women work, as well as government policies that have hit women hardest, such as excluding shorter term casuals and early childhood education and care workers from access to JobKeeper and eliminating access to free early childhood education and care (ACTU 2020), when aggregated, raise a very serious risk that women will reduce their paid work or leave the paid workforce entirely, and that this will have permanent or at least persistent effects.
Research from the University of Queensland indicated that domestic violence against women increased during lockdowns, with some women suffering their first experience of domestic violence. Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, Ms Therese Edwards said that the lockdowns 'stopped papering over the cracks' of the link between insecure work and domestic violence. Having a secure connection to a workplace is a 'safety mechanism' that may provide a lifeline for many women:
It provides you the money to afford safety. When you're broke, you have less chance to afford that safety. It also gives you connection to other adults. It can be a safe place, a place to go, a place to have some freedom and to make those phone calls that you need to make, even if it's quickly done in the morning tea break or whatever that time may be.
The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable young people in insecure work are to sudden economic and health shocks—with significant and potentially long‑term impacts on, not only their economic standing, but their social and civic participation, health and wellbeing, and capacity for recovery.
The economic impact of the pandemic on young Australians has been considerable. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported that of the 592 000 Australian's who lost their jobs in April 2020, more than one‑in-three (38 per cent) were aged between 15–24.
A 2020 survey by the Young Workers Centre, a part of Unions ACT, in which young workers were asked about their experiences of work during the pandemic, revealed similar job loss results. It further shed light on the financial duress young people face:
1 in 3 young workers reported that they were struggling to get enough work to cover the cost of living.
52% saying they were only just getting along, poor or very poor and one quarter pessimistic about their financial future.
To get by, 55% spent less on essentials; 32% borrowed from friends or family; 31% moved back in with family; and, 4% withdrew money from their superannuation.
A further indicator of the disproportionate financial affect the pandemic has had on young people is the rate at which they have accessed early superannuation. More than a third of Australians that have accessed their superannuation early due to coronavirus are under the age of 30. Given that many already work in insecure and casual jobs and therefore may have little super, young people's future retirement may be at risk of being financially unstable, and wholly reliant on the pension for income.
Industry Super Australia has estimated the effect of this early withdrawal, indicating that a 25-year-old who accesses the full $20 000 available under the scheme could lose more than $95 000 from their retirement balance.
In evidence, Executive Officer of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, Mr Luke Rycken, described the pandemic as 'creating an economic crisis for young people', which, without proper intervention, will:
… affect young people for the rest of their lives. Young people will experience worse employment prospects for a significant period of time, and those who do find work will still experience less job security, fewer hours and lower wages.
Mr Dan Nahum, an Economist at the Centre for Future Work, said, due to the 'increasing precarity of the Australian labour market over time', young people have faced more difficulty gaining secure employment, which has relegated them to being the 'last hired and first fired'.
Dr Joseph Borlagdan, Principal Research Fellow at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, said that the pandemic has underscored 'ongoing structural challenges' for young people; notably casualisation, underemployment and stalled career mobility. He expressed concern for increased economic hardship and eminence in insecure work for this cohort in the future:
What we're setting up for young people at the moment is a combination of cruel optimism and encouraging young people to invest more in their education so that they will be better off. Research has shown that over the past decade, since the GFC, this hasn't paid off for young people. They're stuck in low-income work and precarious work.
The National and State Youth Peaks submitted a similar concern indicating that many may suffer 'career scarring'—that being, the negative long-term effect that unemployment has on future career prospects—which may as a result:
… increase [the number of] of young people living in Australia who are unable to access long-term stable employment and who will face significant reductions in lifetime career earnings and standards of living, leading to increased mental health issues, homelessness and a sense of hopelessness for the future.
The International Labour Organization submitted:
Migrant workers are often first to be laid-off but last to gain access to testing or treatment in line with nationals. They are often excluded from national COVID-19 policy responses, such as wage subsidies, unemployment benefits or social security and social protection measures.
This impacted migrants in Australia during this pandemic, where temporary visa holders lost jobs en masse and were excluded from government payment assistance.
A survey of over 6000 temporary visa holders conducted by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and The University of New South Wales (UNSW) found that in the four months from March to July 2020:
70 per cent had lost their jobs or most of their hours/shifts;
40 per cent had been afraid they would become homeless (and 1 in 7 international students had indeed become homeless); and
28 per cent had been unable to pay for meals or food.
These results demonstrate that, prior to the pandemic, temporary visa holders were unable to save enough from their employment to provide for more than a few weeks of expenses following the loss of regular incomes.
Asked by the committee if the circumstances surrounding migrant workers fearing to speak up for, or not knowing their rights, had changed, Mr Matt Kunkel, the Director of the Migrant Workers Centre, said that he had not seen any improvement:
COVID-19, if anything, made it much, much worse. With their exclusion from any type of state support or welfare, they were forced even further into those demanding, dirty and dangerous jobs.
When asked how migrants workers fared during the pandemic, Mr Tim Petterson, a coordinator at Hospo Voice said that in 'every way migrant workers were hit harder than any other category of worker'.
Not only were visa workers ineligible for JobKeeper, which often meant they were the first to be laid off, but workers on skilled visas whose visas were tied to their employment were put in a particularly precarious state and feared being deported if they could not find another employer to sponsor them, which was next to impossible, given how the pandemic was affecting the industry, basically. Our survey told us that migrant workers were more likely to experience a relationship breakdown, twice as likely to have to move out of their home and seven times more likely to have to rely on a charity for food or financial assistance. It was a catastrophe for migrant workers, the pandemic, and we saw the multiple forces of wage theft, insecure work and our visa regime all come together to really magnify the impact on these workers.
Long term effects
The Centre for Future Work expressed concerns about the future of the Australian labour market, arguing that employers will be 'determined to re‑establish insecure work as a dominant practice once the pandemic ends'.
The NFAW noted that the COVID-19 recession is remarkably different to previous recessions given the extent of the shutdown and the specific, targeted effects, with '…a radical short-term shift in the mix of economic activities—of which an unknown, but possibly significant, amount will be persistent'.
The spread of COVID-19 and insecure work
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the considerable health and safety risks associated with casual work, as well as demonstrated the additional problems posed by serious outbreaks of infectious disease.
From early in the pandemic, health advice to all Australians recommended that people stay home if they were feeling unwell, get a COVID test if they met the testing criteria, and isolate while they waited for the results. For workers without leave entitlements, this meant potentially foregoing several days of paid work.
In their submission, Professor Michael Quinlan and Dr Elsa Underhill argued that precarious workers were under pressure to attend work, notwithstanding COVID symptoms or being close contacts of others exposed to the virus. In some circumstances workers holding insecure jobs faced strong pressure not to report illness symptoms, or isolate, because this would mean losing income they needed.
Mr Dwyer identified the lack of sick leave as an 'economic cost' casuals had to weigh up in their choice to attend work or not, he explained:
But what we also saw during COVID was that it was a health risk for the community, because the casuals didn't have paid sick leave, which means there was an economic incentive for them to turn up for work, even if they knew they had symptoms, and they wouldn't get tested, because it was an economic cost.
In other circumstances, workers have been compelled to attend work by management regardless of whether they were a close-contact, or even if they had tested positive to the virus. It was widely revealed that abattoir workers at Teys Naracoorte in South Australia have been expected to work whilst sick. As reported by the ABC on 10 January 2022, a letter to employees from the abattoir's General Manager—Operations stated:
You are required to present for work tomorrow [Monday] as normal unless you are feeling unwell … This applies even if you have tested positive to COVID-19 either by a PCR or rapid test [RAT], and also if you are currently isolating because you are a close contact.
Emeritus Professor David Peetz submitted that the 'absence of paid leave encouraged the spread of the virus'.
The relationship between precarious work and community spread of COVID‑19 was demonstrated during the 2020 Victorian outbreak during which Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said 'about 80 per cent' of the state's infections were coming from workplace transmission. The Victorian experience demonstrates that a lack of paid sick leave is not just a danger to the well-being of those workers in these positions; it also poses a significant threat to public health.
Professor Quinlan and Dr Underhill also argued that societies heavily reliant on insecure work are both more vulnerable to pandemics and find it 'more difficult to suppress and manage them'. The risk factors of insecure employment arrangements are a clear lesson of the pandemic, and this experience therefore represents 'a warning signal' for the future.
The Australian Institute of Employment Rights recommended that, given the role that precarious work played in the spread of COVID-19 in Australia, 'addressing precarious and insecure work should be a part of the nation's pandemic preparedness and response strategy'.
Government payments and supports
As noted, insecure workers, predominantly casuals, were the first to lose their jobs or be stood down due to lockdowns. As such, many found themselves with no source of income. Given that casual workers experience both a lower hourly and annual wage than their permanent counterparts, many casual employees did not have sufficient savings to weather such an event. Further compounding the problem for casual workers was uncertainty around government financial assistance schemes.
The main Federal government scheme was the $130 billion JobKeeper Payment scheme, announced on 30 March 2020 to support businesses affected by COVID-19 lockdowns and keep workers in jobs. It is acknowledged that, at the completion of JobKeeper on 28 March 2021, the absence of integrated and comprehensive income supports for the remainder of 2021 was a pressing concern for casual workers. The below however only outlines casual workers' experience with the JobKeeper scheme.
As in name, JobKeeper was touted to keep Australian in jobs, however, it deliberately excluded some worker cohorts. Many of these exclusions targeted workers and industries that had been the hardest hit by the pandemic including: casual employees who could not demonstrate 12 months of continuous employment with the same employer; all temporary visa holders; and all local government employees. Because of these exclusions, an estimated 1.1 million casual employees did not qualify for the JobKeeper scheme.
The Executive Director of Business Illawarra, Mr Adam Zarth, identified the essential role that JobKeeper played in keeping people in jobs during lockdown. He provided examples of how JobKeeper impacted local businesses, including: a catering company that would have 'closed down if it weren't for JobKeeper'; and a tourism operator, which was already experiencing hardship due to the 2019–20 bushfire season that 'credits JobKeeper with keeping their staff employed'.
However, Mr Zarth also reflected on the 'issues' JobKeeper created when 'it came to hiring'. On the experience of one company, he said:
When they were trying to get back up and running, they had a 50 per cent no-show rate for apprentice landscaper interviews compared to about 10 to 15 per cent earlier. That's the reflection of just one employer, but perhaps it does demonstrate that there was a disrupting effect out there in the workforce created by JobKeeper, that that's what happens when you have major interventions in the economy.
Numerous inquiry participants criticised the decision to exclude casuals who had not been with their employer for at least 12 months. This eligibility criteria was described as arbitrary, and it was argued that it placed a considerable burden on casuals, and also exacerbated labour market inequalities, especially amongst those already considerably disadvantaged.
Box 6.1: JobKeeper exclusion testimony
'I work for a labour-hire company in Event Services. When the Sydney Lockdown was imposed I was not able to prove to Centrelink I had shifts scheduled for the period of the lockdown as the events had been cancelled before my employer had been allocated shifts/position, meaning I am ineligible for the lockdown support payments'.
'My friend was stood down from his hospitality work but can't get government relief payments because he was paid cash-in-hand'.
'Very disappointing being told by my boss that my job is not a vital service
No pay for past month
Not enough hours worked to qualify for financial assistance'.
Mr Michael Clifford, General Secretary of the Queensland Council of Unions, said that of the in 213 000 people who were excluded from JobKeeper in Queensland, a significant proportion came from lower socioeconomic areas, including 5200 people from the Mackay region.
Branch Secretary of the Victorian and Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Services Union (ASU), Ms Lisa Darmanin, highlighted the fact that those missing out on JobKeeper were not limited to food and beverage, and retail service industries, but also included staff from local government-run childcare services, arts and entertainment venues, and recreation centres. She said:
In Victoria, what we saw in terms of job security and local government was that approximately 20 per cent of the workforce is casualised out of 52,000 just in Victoria. At the height of the pandemic, 7,000 of those were stood down and did not access JobKeeper.
The Young Workers Centre submitted evidence from a survey that found:
Only 28% of respondents qualified for JobKeeper. Of those, 31% said that they were forced by their employer to work extra hours to 'qualify' for the JobKeeper rate, and 8% said they were directly threatened with losing JobKeeper support if they didn't agree to increase their hours.
The Victorian Government said the significant difference in the incidence of job losses between casual and permanent staff reflects the inherently flexible nature of casual employment contracts which 'may have encouraged employers to sever shorter term casual staff and use wage subsidies to retain long-term or permanent employees'.
Committee view—looking forward
The COVID-19 pandemic has offered some important insights into the state of the Australian industrial relations landscape. A reflection of their insecure status, casual and insecure workers bore the brunt of the pandemic—most notably women, migrants, and young people. Their historic job losses, and relative abandonment through restrictive eligibility requirements for income support, confirms the urgency of addressing insecure work through policy reform.
It is crucial to recognise the inherent heightened exposure of those in insecure work—made plain by the pandemic—and take steps to provide all workers with secure jobs. Options for reform and the committee's recommendations are outlined in the following chapter.