How flexible are casual staff?

There is a critical social change happening that is happening which has made all our lives a great deal more difficult.. That change involves the status and basis of employment of casual staff, who have traditionally provided our industry with a necessary flexible workforce.

Go back 25 years and casual staff were considered to be ‘daily hired’ staff — legally they were hired at the start of a shift and effectively fired at the end of a shift. They were mostly students and younger people who were awaiting permanent roles in the workforce, and they fulfilled a necessary role for businesses by providing a pool of people who could be brought in at short notice to cope with seasonal peaks or irregular busy periods.

Our industry grew to depend on this flexible human resource and it was, and still is, rare to find a hospitality business that does not have a substantial pool of casual staff on its books. In recalling my early days in the fast food industry I would have to admit that our business would not have been viable without them. They still occupy this important role today.

Rapid rise in casual and part-time employment

A high percentage of hospitality staff are casual

As a direct result of global economic forces and an evolving society we now have a situation where permanent employment is declining and there is a rapid rise in the percentage of our population who are employed on a casual or part time basis. Most business sectors are trying to reduce wage costs in order to compete on a global market and are replacing permanent staff with casual staff wherever they can.

As well as the economic reasons for the growth in casual employment we also have a social reason driving the change. More and more couples are pursuing the great Australian dream of owning their own home and are both forced to work in order to fulfill this expectation. With both adults in a family working there is a need for a more flexible basis of employment than the traditional nine-to-five, forty hour week. Casual or part time employment gives the chance to take the kids to school, pick them up, take time off to go to doctors’ appointments, etc.

As our economy grows, casuals get more rights

In response to the growing proportion of our population who are now in casual or part time employment, our unions and those Government departments concerned with labour regulation have been steadily fighting for more and more rights for these categories of staff. When I think back thirty years ago to the start of my management career we regarded casual staff as a sort of second class, cheap, disposable form of worker — as much as I’m reluctant to admit it. This was the prevailing attitude of the time.

Gradually over the years their status has changed. First they got holiday and sick leave entitlements, which made them a similar cost per hour to permanent staff. Earlier this year we were informed of a further development that I think will have a profound effect on this industry in the future.

You can’t just drop casuals off the roster — they must undergo a proper termination process

You can’t just drop them off a roster

We were making enquiries on behalf of one of our clients with VECCI (The Victorian Employer’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry), and were told by one of their specialist advisory staff that casual staff who had been employed for more than 12 months could no longer be simply dropped off a roster. They now have the same rights as permanent staff — ie, if you want to terminate their services you have to take them right through the termination and disciplinary process. Our own research of both State and Federal awards has confirmed this.

If you ask you will also be told that there is no such thing as redundancy payment for casual staff, but you are required to pay them a ‘notice’ payment if you make them redundant. This amounts to the same thing whatever you call it. To make matters worse the unions are currently fighting to get very generous formalised redundancy payments for casuals.

Other industries are ahead of us with casual entitlements

It’s interesting to note that in several other industry sectors (such as manufacturing) if you work a casual for regular shifts for more than a short time they automatically become part timers (who have the same rights as a permanent). Imagine the effect on our industry if seasonal staff who worked for three months or so automatically became permanent? These things have a nasty habit of spreading.

Gazing into the future, the flexibility of casual and part-time staff will continue to diminish

Where is this heading?

Where is this all heading? There is no reason to believe that the relentless move towards giving permanent and casual staff the same rights will stop here. What happens to our industry when the means of having a flexible workforce with simple administration requirements is denied to us? Looking at the big picture and considering what is good for our society, I think it’s a good thing — but looking at the ramifications for the hospitality industry, it presents substantial problems.

Of course the Awards say we can get around the problem of creating a flexible workforce by putting our former casual and part time staff onto short term contracts or agreements, but you would have to either have a very complicated agreement that considered every potential change to employment structure, or you would have to redraw or renegotiate the whole thing when you wanted a simple change. This would probably mean that the meagre profits you are probably now making will be transferred to our cousins in the legal fraternity.

It used to be so easy in the good ‘ol days . . .