Non-ongoing work major issue in ACT public service, union says

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday November 8, 2019

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Thousands of public sector employees in Canberra work in insecure roles, with hundreds of education and health services staff having worked as casuals for more than five years.

In a recent submission to the ACT 2020-21 budget, the Community and Public Sector Union called for the government to reduce insecure work arrangements in the public service, noting that 24% of all ACT public sector workers were employed on a non-ongoing basis. In health and education, this amounts to thousands of employees without the security of a full-time job and everything that goes with it.

Roughly 1626 Canberra Health Service staff are employed on a non-ongoing basis. That’s more than a quarter of the entire directorate. Meanwhile, the number of either temporary or casual staff working in Education is 1456 — 24.4% of the directorate.

The union pointed out that insecure workers, who have fewer entitlements than permanent staff members, are disadvantaged in a range of ways. 

“This has flow on consequences for many areas of their lives such as the ability to plan, eligibility for loans, and retirement incomes. Insecure work arrangements create undue pressure and stress on workers,” the submission stated.

“But while there are some circumstances in which there is a legitimate need for the engagement of employees on a temporary basis, the current use of these arrangements in ACT government goes far beyond what is acceptable…Even though ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiency’ are cited as reasons for using insecure arrangements, there are transaction costs such as additional recruitment and training costs, the premium paid to labour hire companies and the increased expense of using contractors.”

Employers often present the growth of insecure, impermanent forms of work as a new age of flexibility that benefits employees alike. Last year, for example, the former federal public service commissioner John Lloyd opined that most people doing insecure forms of “contingent work” via labour-hire firms or in the gig economy were probably enjoying themselves, but this view is contested by research on the challenges young people face today.

While 554 education and 102 health services staff in Canberra have reportedly been employed as casuals for more than five years, hundreds more have worked temporarily in jobs that are technically vacant.

The CPSU noted that long-term insecurity could lower staff morale, contribute to loss of corporate knowledge, reduce security of information, and lower the quality of services.

However, a recent report from the Women’s Centre for Health Matters and the ACT Council of Social Service found that since 2014, there has been a growth of full-time jobs in early childhood education in Canberra. It has also been reported that the ACT government recently offered 200 casual and temporary teachers permanent full-time work.

The CPSU has also requested more funding to help alleviate resource pressures in government agencies, including the Canberra Health Service, but said that funding must not come from cutting other parts of the public service.

“There are increasing pressures and expectations on [public sector] employees whose job it is to deliver public services to the community and implement public policy … A properly resourced public service is needed to meet the Canberra community’s needs and expectations,” the union said.

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