Casual workers could soon have the right to become permanent employees, but business groups warn the changes threaten to devastate many small firms.

Employment Minister Tony Burke has unveiled reforms to force bosses to offer casual staff who work regular hours a permanent job.

Workers would not have to take up the offer and could remain casual employees to continue receiving loadings on their hourly rates.

More than 850,000 people will be covered by the changes, but Mr Burke expects most casuals will opt for the status quo.

He said the proposal would neither deter employers from taking on casual workers nor impact the bottom line for business.

“I don’t see in a million years how this can add costs to business, because instead of paying the loading, you pay leave, you never pay both … and they’re calculated to offset each other,” he said.

Mr Burke said the changes would improve workers’ rights and close a loophole used by employers to avoid paying permanent entitlements to an ongoing workforce.

Businesses would not have to back-pay employees for any entitlements gained by moving to permanent employment.

“At the moment you can be working a full-time roster for a year and you still get classed as a casual,” Mr Burke said.

“There’ll be some people with those sorts of hours who want to stay where they are and nothing will change for them, but for people who want security this gives them a way to be able to do it.”

Australian Council of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar warned the changes could create uncertainty for large employers and smash small businesses.

“They are concerned that if they lose that flexibility, the ability to roster people according to demand and according to the requirements of the business, that’s a fundamental change,” he said.

“Our concern is that what the government is proposing would take us backwards, it would unpick that existing level of certainty.

“That can’t be a good thing for employment and it can’t be a good thing for small business.”

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the proposed change could result in a radical restriction on employers’ ability to engage casual workers for regular and predictable hours.

He said many casuals valued working regularly and having predictability while wanting the option not to work.

“Defining casual employment in a way that prevents or discourages an employer from offering a casual regular and predictable hours would be a mistake that would damage the economy and hurt both businesses and employees,” he said.

“It won’t help anyone if an employer is forced to convert a casual employee to a permanent job if one doesn’t genuinely exist.

“The real risk is that employees will be laid off down the track.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said the government’s proposal was modest but welcome.

“People who are working regular jobs with regular hours deserve regular rights,” she said.

“The government is leaving it in the hands of the worker to decide, if they’re working regular hours, they want to be a permanent employee, get sick leave and annual leave or whether they want to keep their loading and remain as a casual.

“I don’t think that it could be fairer than that.”


Maeve Bannister
(Australian Associated Press)