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.

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