The Coalition’s industrial relations omnibus bill has been labelled an “immediate threat to public health” by experts who warn it will increase casualisation of work.
The warning is contained in a submission signed by nine public health experts from the Australian National University who warn lack of paid sick leave will exacerbate a weakness in Australia’s Covid-19 response.
The experts, led by associate professor Kamalini Lokuge and professor Emily Banks, called on the government to remove “provisions that will promote insecure work” and instead “strengthen the security and protections provided to employees”.
The omnibus bill, introduced in December, allows casual workers to request to become permanent after 12 months but contains no enforcement mechanism if an employer refuses.
The bill will define a person as a casual employee if work was offered and accepted on an indefinite basis without an agreed pattern of work. Unions, Labor and the Greens fear this will allow businesses to hire employees as casuals and deprive them of leave entitlements, even if they subsequently work a regular roster.
The ANU Research School of Population Health College of Health and Medicine submission to the Senate inquiry notes that Australia already has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements among OECD nations, with estimates ranging from 25% to 37% of the workforce.
“Casual workers are twice affected by the pandemic, due to the absence of leave entitlements, and by being among the lowest paid and insecure workers,” they said.
The public health experts cited modelling that paid leave, including for flu and other infectious diseases, can reduce workplace infections by at least 25%.
They argued casual workers are already at risk of infection and transmission, citing healthcare workers, personal care attendants, cleaners, security guards, abattoir workers, delivery workers, supermarket staff, public transport and taxi drivers, and childcare staff.
The experts submitted the bill “encourages a subjective agreement between employer and employee to categorise an employee to be a casual irrespective of actual work patterns”.
Without an objective definition of casual employment, the bill “minimises the enforceable obligation to offer the employee permanent employment”, they said.
The academics also took aim at measures that “significantly dilute the fundamental protection of the better off overall test”, a reference to a new exception that allows pay deals that leave workers worse off if it is “appropriate” in the circumstances and not against the national interest.
Lokuge said “all the evidence shows the changes proposed in this act pose an immediate threat to public health”.
“The proposed changes will undermine our world-class response to Covid by increasing casual employment and insecure working conditions. They will also lead to inadequate protections and lack of access to paid sick leave.”
In mid-2020 states including Victoria introduced a $1,500 pandemic leave payment to encourage sick workers requiring Covid tests to self-isolate.
The commonwealth introduced its own scheme, which Labor argued failed to extend entitlements to the payments but merely changed funding arrangements.
When Victoria proposed a broader scheme offering five days of sick and carer’s pay to some workers, the federal industrial relations minister, Christian Porter, claimed it amounted to a “massive tax” on business.
On Wednesday the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, proposed sick leave could be extended by portable leave schemes if Labor is elected, which Porter claimed could cost up to $20bn.