Issue 2 • 2021
Workforce casualisation and mobility in a COVID world
The challenges faced by the casual workforce in a COVID-19 world was the focus, as Dr Amanda Sillcock FAFOEM chaired the occupational health and environmental medicine (OHEM) session on the topic, Workplace safety: The challenges of workforce casualisation and mobility, at RACP Congress 2021. A leading expert panel that included, Dr Robert McCartney FAFOEM, Professor Paul Colditz FRACP and Dr John Parkes FAFPHM, FAFOEM, their combined experience across a broad cross-section of the modern workplace was always going to be illuminating.
Dr McCartney began the session with a brief history of the casual workforce, including how, in the past, fixed permanent jobs were rare. Early workers were primarily casual and paid on a piecemeal basis. The change to full-time workers really only started to occur during the Industrial Revolution and boomed with the growth of unions. Recounting some interesting statistics regarding the size of the casual workforce, Dr McCartney noted that “according to the ABS data, approximately 25 per cent of employees are employed on a casual basis”.
He went on to speak of how employers viewed casual workers as a vital resource for remaining flexible and competitive. When the economy is growing, casual workers allow employers to expand without long-term costs. This flexibility, however, meant that, with the arrival of COVID-19, the number of casual workers losing their positions was disproportionately high. Additionally, he noted that there was some concern over the increase in insecure employment and the struggle of accurately assessing the impact of those workers on the economy. “As there is no formal legal definition of casual employment, it is generally regarded as workers who have no entitlement to paid leave such as annual, sick and carers leave, but not those who are considered owner/managers.”
Dr McCartney laid out the theory of how casualisation impacts the workforce, including through increased risk of work-related injuries, less occupational health and safety (OHS) training, less familiarity with environments and practices, and the possibility of being assigned to tasks with greater risk of encountering hazards, but he also stressed that it was important to focus on evidence rather than theory. “We have to look at the hazard and then address the hazard.”
Psychological wellbeing was also addressed, and Dr McCartney cited the 2021 paper in which Hahn et al used longitudinal data (2001-2018) to assess the impact of working in casual employment, including use of the SF-36 health survey: “the results suggested that the health outcomes for casual workers were no worse than for permanent workers for any of the eight SF-36 health attributes.” For some health attributes, the casual workers scored higher.
Professor Colditz then proceeded to examine how casualisation affects different areas of the workforce. Also drawing on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data and its limited definitions, he suggested that some of the data it provides ignores the gig economy.
It is estimated that higher education contributes $40 billion per annum to the economy and that some estimates suggest that there could be a halving of income for the industry due to COVID-19. Higher education, he noted, is in a tough spot as, unlike many industries, it is unaccustomed to such a sudden and significant drop. The ABS data suggests casualisation in the tertiary sector is around 20.1 per cent and with the arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent border closures, the long-term impacts on the workforce aren’t clear.
So, what are the likely impacts and what is the actual casualisation rate within the university sector? The ABS says 20.1 per cent, but most states do not require this specific data to be kept. In Victoria, where they do keep this information, the tertiary casual workforce is around 68.7 per cent for their universities.
“An ABC report from late 2020 states 5,000 academics at just two universities in Victoria do not have a job,” said Professor Colditz. With no clear data, he stresses, it is hard to assess the impacts. “If you’ve got a workforce that comes and goes and is just held together by some tenured staff at more senior levels, then is teaching quality at risk?” The industry needs money and it has become increasingly dependent on overseas students. For international student communities, with many other open border countries providing education alternatives, the impact may be long term.
Is teaching at risk? If you end up with a less skilled and less professionally equipped teaching staff, then there’s likely going to be an impact. Professor Colditz stressed, “these casual staff are not going to be engaged in the universities, will not be engaged in research, but just deliver educational modules and you end up with a compromised academic environment and professional integrity".
Attempting to provide some better understanding of the effect on Victorian workers in the second COVID-19 wave, Dr Parkes explored how “the very things that workplaces thought they were doing to make their companies more efficient, were in fact things that led to the spread of the virus”.
Labour hire and agency staff working across multiple sites and with casual staff are often given a smaller slice of the work, which leads to multiple jobs, both declared and undeclared. As the Victorian experience showed, it was amazing how just a few casual workers working across different sites were able to impact the spread of the virus.
Dr Parkes also addressed the impact on regional centres, and how often casual workers working in regional areas often house together. Workers living close together in Housing Commission towers and rooming houses, car-pooling or other means of economically sharing resources, were factors that increased risk of transmission. Dr Parkes spoke of how casualisation leads to increased sickness-related presenteeism as a result of the lack of sick or holiday pay. Many casual workers felt that they really had to work, even if they had symptoms, as to not work would also put their jobs at risk.
The pandemic showed employers how vulnerable they could be in this respect, sometimes to the cost of many millions of dollars.
So how best to respond? Dr McCartney drew on his direct experience from the mining industry, pointing out that mines don’t ever really shut down. They simply shut down casual workers and operate on minimum staffing. Approximately 420,000 Australians regularly fly from cities to remote mine sites for work and thousands more fly in fly out (FIFO) serving the oil and gas industry. Even when there were border controls, it didn’t stop the FIFO community as mines were designated essential services.
He also talked of the different quarantine requirements, which changed frequently depending on community spread. Tools such as: performing risk assessments for each worker, risk management for the vulnerable, pre-travel risk assessment, and site risk assessment can be useful. There was also a need to constantly monitor all states and territories and provide immediate 24/7 telehealth, as well as testing and return to work (RTW) clearances and vaccine assistance globally.
For community management, it was often important to reassure the communities that they were flying into, that they had taken steps to mitigate risk to ensure the communities would allow work to continue. This meant that any workers with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 were stood down immediately and that strategies to get workers tested quickly and return to work were needed. “These services will need rigorous ongoing management with evidence based best practice advice,” explained Dr McCartney.
Professor Colditz took time to discuss the implications for the health workforce, especially the specialist workforce. We are all busy dealing with the pandemic, so the question arises, “Who is doing the thinking about how we recover?” We should consider the current situation as an opportunity to develop permanent solutions for the future.
“We need to rebuild the healthcare workforce pipeline. It’s been disrupted. Our own continuing professional development (CPD) has been put on hold.” He noted that, for the most part, employers have been more interested in dealing with COVID-19 healthcare emergencies than professional development, and that was something that would need to be addressed. He also suggested that the epidemic might have serious implications for the next generation of healthcare providers. “The next generation might view the fatigue and burnout from the pandemic as a reason to not join the medical workforce.”
There is, however, he noted, some reason for optimism when it comes to sustaining focus on mental health in the medical workforce. The College has taken some good steps in that direction. Professor Colditz spoke of how there needs to be a focus on building concepts like long-term agility, longevity, adaptability and resilience. “It is easier to say the words than it is to imbed them into a system.” He finished by addressing notions of workforce sustainability, how we arrived in the pandemic with stressors in relation to sustainability, the delivery of services to remote and regional communities and unproductive cultures.
What are we doing internally? We must recognise there are forces and fragmentation of opportunities, and we are not necessarily grasping them well. “If you are a hospital administrator, and you have got to get 500 outpatients through in the week, how many will a couple of full timers do relative to five people employed at .2 on a whole day of outpatients, nothing else.” Looking to the future, he asks, can we rely on workforce planning entities? “They are kind of working on it, but these issues are challenges and won’t be easily solved.”
Finally, Dr Parkes was quite realistic in his assessment. Employers have made significant changes, mostly due to financial necessity. Many employers have been making casual workers permanent, hopefully reducing presenteeism and taking the benefits of sick leave, as well as using strategies such as focusing workers on single sites, and employers negotiating with labour hire agencies to ensure workers stay in the same locations.
There is a growing understanding that in a number of situations it is better to pay workers to stand down than exposing other workers to the risk of infection. For example, standing down workers whose family members were working at another workplace where there was an outbreak (such as an abattoir worker whose spouse was working at a different abattoir where there was an outbreak). Dr Parkes also noted a growing increase in employers taking a much deeper interest in employees, knowing their living circumstances: where they were living and who they were living with, and suggesting improvements, such as arranging for workers working in the same area of a work place to live together in the same rooming house, rather than different rooming houses. These changes have impacted the lives of casual workers positively.
As for the future, the panel discussed how to get more involved in the health industry workplace. The future of the Australian workforce is human services and there needs to be work to become more involved in those sectors and provide services. An example of their voice not being heard is in situations where there is a governmental split, such as in aged care. This is a federal government concern, but pandemic management is being conducted by the states. This meant that doctors, especially occupational physicians, were not involved in managing the pandemic in this sector despite nearly half of the cases being workers.
© 2021 The Royal Australasian College of Physicians