Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go…

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

Do you have the sort of job that is secure, full-time and that pays you holiday (vacation) leave and sick pay? Is it a job that encourages you to strive to achieve your best and that offers a career path and promotion? Do you feel valued and appreciated, thus making you a more loyal and committed employee?

If you answer yes to these questions, you are in the minority—at least in Australia and, as far as I can tell, in other Western countries such as NZ, the US and the UK. And even if you do have a ‘proper’ job, you’re often treated appallingly as an employee. For example, read about my blogosphere friend Goldfish’s treatment in the US this week: http://fishofgold.net/2014/08/03/when-2-hours-feels-like-5/

The appealing idea of being happy in our work is now only in the realms of Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she who whistled while she worked and they who sang merrily as they marched off to work in the mines.

When I first came to Australia in 1988 as a young but experienced journalist, things here were pretty good. Back in NZ, we still got ‘Christmas bonuses’—an extra week’s pay in December. That didn’t happen in Australia, and I had to take a pay cut, but there were other benefits. Rent, food and wine were cheaper in Australia, we got more holiday leave and—I can hardly believe I’m saying this now—we got a “leave loading”, that is, more pay when on leave than not. As a journalist, I worked most public holidays, but I also got six weeks and three days of paid holiday leave a year. We were all full-time employees with permanent positions.

Even in the early 2000s, when I worked for a magazine owned by the media mogul Kerry Packer, we all got enormous holiday hampers in December. These were worth several hundred dollars each, and included pretty much everything you needed for your celebration, including a choice of turkey, ham or salmon in a special fridge pack, wine, luxurious chocolates and much more. All company employees got the same type of hamper, from the lowliest office junior to the CEO.

Mr Packer is dead now, and so is that sort of magnanimity. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you don’t get laid off right before the holiday season.

I changed careers from journalism to tertiary education in 2008. In the tertiary education sector, latest statistics (2012) from the Commonwealth Department of Education paint a disturbing picture: 84% of all academic staff have insecure jobs; 80.3% of people employed in teaching-only positions are casual and a further 10.2% are on short-term contracts; and note that these are full-time equivalent numbers, each of which equates to four actual workers. These figures were reported in the July 2014 edition of Connect, the magazine for casual academic staff run by Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU, of which I am a delegate).

In her article ‘University work becoming more precarious’, NTEU president Jeannie Rea says that  there has been no comment on the statistics from any university, and that the NTEU is the only tertiary entity to have published them, apart from the government department.

I have been working as what is euphemistically called a “sessional” (really a casual) since 2008. Luckily, I have had enough work nearly every semester. But there is still that dreadful time from November to March when there is little or no work (I’m trying to rectify that now by working at another institution as well that has a summer trimester). At a time of year when the weather is warm and people in my industry should be relaxing or on vacation, I’m counting pennies and worrying about how much work I will get next semester so I can start paying off the inevitable credit card debt.

It’s not all bad though. I have time to write and to paint, time to recover from 60-hour weeks at the end of the year and so on.

But in my experience, nothing beats a secure full-time job. I believe the country is the poorer for treating many of its most highly educated, smartest and ablest workers, in fields from journalism to education to anything else you might name, as expendable commodities.

It’s a worker’s right to expect security and decent pay and conditions. In return, it is an employer’s right to expect that employee to work hard, to be loyal, honest and committed, to take sick leave only when they are sick, and to be respectful of the company and their co-workers.

Casual employment is a lose-lose situation for both employees and employers. When are they going to realise it? I predict that things will, eventually, change for the better. One day, some bright spark in HR will come up with the amazing idea that employees who feel secure and valued do better work, enabling the company to make more profit.

But I don’t think this will be in my working lifetime. I predict it will take a generation or more for this to happen. Hopefully, it will be in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

10 thoughts on “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go…

  1. I had one of those “full time” jobs but in the end it was a pain. Glad I’m not doing that any more. But you’re right about the security thing Caron. I guess we just have to place our trust in something greater (and more loving) than the “company’.

  2. Caron – What a brilliant piece. And you’re spot on about the way employment has changed. Most people have no real job security any more, even if they do work both hard and well. Doesn’t matter the way it did. And that lack of security is hard on morale and hard on both physical and mental health. So if an employer finds that employees are not living up to expectations as they might, that could be one reason way. And as you’ve found, even supposedly high-status occupations like tertiary education are not immune to it. I hope it changes too…

  3. I have really mixed feelings about these things! I’ve rarely wanted to have a 9-to-5 job; when I did have one, I never got sleep and felt too much like a zombie to enjoy the rest of my time. That was a huge problem for me. Time is valuable, and I’ve never been sure I believe all my weekday hours should belong to another or else — which always seems to be the implication with how our societies are structured. I think I’d have to be saving lives for me to look at it differently. All that said, I would like benefits and “security,” which I suppose I’ve never explicitly had. I’ve yet to figure out what the sweet spot is in all this.

    With productivity booming over time, there’s no reason why many industries couldn’t pay more for casual time and ultimately get the same or nearly the same output, if not better. The only reason that isn’t happening, it seems, is because of greed on the one side and tradition on the other. I’m sick of both, I feel. I can’t understand the inhumanity of greed or the desire to work more hours (for money) than is actually required for things to run smoothly.

    It’d be great if a country really attempted to install a basic income; Finland might. I worry that it could cause inflation, but we won’t know until we try, and if it were to work, it could free people from insecurity and perhaps even the worst elements of poverty. It could also get rid of this horrible dynamic of needing to work 30 to 40 hours to survive.

    • You make some very good points, Kate. A lot more thought could be put into making life more equitable. The other thing I find is that ‘the poor’ are stereotyped in the media as always being disadvantaged people with little education and with other problems. But the ‘working poor’ are in all areas of life, even the so-called ‘professions’, as are those who just make enough to cover their rent and basic bills, and little more. If I didn’t have a partner, I would be in the latter category, even though I work up to 60 hours a week during the semester.
      I think some jobs work very well on a contract or even casual basis, and of course, some people want to be free (or can afford to be free) to pursue their own interests for part of the year. The trouble is, not every type of job is suited to this model, and there doesn’t seem to be any consideration that different types of work require different modes of employment to be most efficient and for both employee and employer to get the most out of each other.

  4. It’s the same here, in Canada. I think it’s true worldwide. To be honest I think secure, full time jobs are a thing of the past. What is inexcuseable, is that any employee — full time or otherwise — should be treated badly or disrespectfully.

    I totally hear what you’re saying, though. I had a full time job my whole career and 4 years ago I chose to go freelance. It definitely takes getting used to the cycles — one minute you’re crazy busy and the next you’re not sure where your next meal will come from. On the plus side I love the freedom. As long as I meet my deadlines I can work wherever and whenever I want — i can go to a movie and work all night; and as long as I have an internet connection I can even work on a beach.

    I think we all have to learn to accept that this is a different world. To survive and even thrive we have to become entrepreneurs and self-employed. I think “small business” is the way of the future. And universities have to change their MBA programs accordingly. Continuing to train students for jobs at the P&Gs of this world is no longer relevant because there aren’t any jobs there.

    • Yes, freelance work can be wonderful. I was a freelance journalist for a few years and loved working my own hours. I had an office across the road from a small cinema and I could just see out my window to the notice with the session times and films that were playing. I would often go to the movies around lunchtime, taking my lunch with me. Lovely!
      However, not every type of job is suited to this mode. For example, I heard on the radio this week that 65% of school teachers in Australia are on short-term contracts, constantly worried about where they will find their next job. Teachers shouldn’t be stressed about that sort of stuff: they should be able to put their time into looking after the students’ interests, reflecting on their teaching methods and striving to be the best teachers they can be.
      Ditto academics: it’s simply not a casual job.
      The other thing is that banks are way behind on the new employment modes. For example, people on short-term and casual contracts don’t qualify for housing loans from reputable banks, even if they’ve paid the same amount in rent for many years.

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