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Young Workers Centre YWC
News from young workers

What's the big deal with casual work?

It’s time we talked about casual work. 

As young workers, most of us have been in casual work at one stage or another. We’ve been told that ‘it’s great for young people’ because it’s flexible, you get paid more per hour, and you can leave whenever you want to. But over the past couple of years (particularly during these unprecedented times) we've been seeing the pitfalls. So it’s time we mythbust and clear up some of the misinformation around casual work.   


Is it really more ‘flexible’? 

Short answer? Yes, it can be. Your shifts aren’t the same from week to week and unless you have a contract that says otherwise, you have the right to turn down shifts at any time. Plus, you get paid more per hour for missing out on entitlements like leave and minimum hours etc.

But the more important question is, do casual workers ever really get to make the most of the flexibility? 

If you think ‘flexibility’ is a reality for most young casual workers, you’ve never tried turning down a shift a few days or even a week in advance. Some of the time your boss will get pissed at you, other times you’ll be pulled off the roster completely in retaliation for even asking. We see it all the time at the Young Workers Centre, and sadly because of the way our law is set up you may not even have access to unfair dismissal if this happens to you as a casual. 

And is ‘flexibility’ even all its chalked up to be anyway? We’re not talking about the romantic flexible work dream of cashed-up freelancers working remotely from beach to beach. Casual workers are overwhelmingly young, in the lowest income brackets, and often don’t seek out ‘flexible’ work but rather have it thrust upon them. As Lukas (22, Melbourne) puts it, ‘it's essentially impossible to do any long or even medium-term life planning without stable work.’ 

‘Working as a casual means you can't plan ahead, can't save or think about the future, because you're just trying to get enough shifts and stay afloat,’ says Bella from the Young Workers Centre.

From waiting around for a last-minute roster, to feeling like you can’t make plans on your day off in case you need to pick up an extra shift you desperately need, or even not knowing if you’ll still have an income a few weeks from now. 

Without a safe, secure income, it’s hard to feel like you’re in control of your own life. 


But I’m young… do I even need sick leave? 

If an eighteen month (and ongoing) global pandemic hasn’t convinced you yet, I’m not sure what will, but - Young. People. Get. Sick. Too.

All of us who have worked casually have in the past, at one point or another, gone to work sick because we desperately needed the money. As a casual worker, I’ve gotten the flu from a skint co-worker and subsequently spent two weeks in bed, out of action, without pay. I’ve gone to work with bronchitis, a fever, and even once called my regional manager at an *unnamed* fast food restaurant to argue him out of forcing a much younger coworker to come into work with GASTRO. 

Which brings me to my next point, a lack of sick leave doesn’t just put workers at risk, it puts our customers and patients at risk too. The dangerous system of casual, insecure work was really exposed when nursing homes became major outbreak centres early in the Covid-19 pandemic, in many instances due to low-paid casual workers working between multiple workplaces. Casual work isn’t just bad for the workers, it’s bad for everyone.


But the extra money makes it worth it… right? 

Clearly, casual work often isn’t enough for most workers to put aside savings to cover their own ‘sick leave’. 

But more than that, ‘as a casual worker, you’re just too expensive’, says Leila (24, Melbourne). This means that when things get tough for the business (like during a global pandemic) you’re often the first to go. And that’s if you even get the correct pay in the first place. One survey found that in hospitality, an industry with one of the highest density of casual workers in Australia, over 80% of workers reported having experienced wage theft in their current or past job.  


So, what can I do? 

If you can convert to full-time or part-time work, you should. But we know that this isn’t an option for many casual workers just picking up whatever work they can. Under some awards, you can elect for full-time or part-time conversion after 6-12 months, but the employer is still granted a lot of ways to get around this. Check out the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website for more info. 

In the meantime, talk to your co-workers about collectively demanding secure work, and join your Union! Become one of the people fighting for secure work and a living wage for all workers and learn what it means to push back against the powerful. Not sure which Union you’re covered by? Follow this handy guide by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.