AddThis Social Bookmark Button

 ‘Clean Start’ campaign stock-xchng2006 - The voice of vulnerable workers in the changing world of work - download PDF Word
In November 2005, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference voiced its concerns about the impact of the federal government’s industrial relations changes on the poor and the vulnerable and on family life.

On this Feast Day of St Joseph the Worker, let us recall what the Church has said and listen to the voice of vulnerable workers in the changing context of workplace relations.   

Changes in the world of work

It would be difficult to overstate the enormity of the changes in the world of work over the past two decades. In 1988, 74 per cent of all employees were permanent full-time workers. This category now describes only 60 per cent of all employees.1 The trend is particularly concerning because it has been accompanied by increased casualisation, a general reduction in job security, persistent underemployment and a pattern of low-paid jobs replacing higher-paid jobs.

It is sometimes claimed that such trends are the result of inevitable economic processes, and that little can be done to prevent their development. This position, however, is contrary to the Church’s teaching that we should be unmoved by ideologies that would abandon a purposive role for government and the community. Labour markets, like all markets, are continually shaped by the decisions governments make. This is certainly true in the field of industrial relations.

In 2006, the community awaits the effects of the federal government’s changes to industrial law — changes that have been described by many experts as the most far-reaching in a century. This level of change requires vigilance. The Church’s social justice tradition, as outlined in the Compendium of Social Doctrine, holds that:

The historical forms in which human work is expressed change, but not its permanent requirements, which are summed up in the respect of the inalienable human rights of workers... The more substantial the changes are, the more decisive the commitment of intellect and will to defend the dignity of work needs to be… [art. 319]

The voice of the Church

In keeping with this tradition, my brother bishops and I articulated a number of concerns that go to the likely general effects of the ‘WorkChoices’ legislation, and to particular effects that can strike the most vulnerable:

  • that minimum wages would be pushed lower or erode over time
  • that creating jobs by allowing wages and conditions to fall would do little to lift people out of poverty
  •  that a reduction of the award safety net would see the loss of fair standards of employment for all
  • that the removal of unfair dismissal laws for most businesses would exacerbate job insecurity
  • that the role of unions representing their members and other workers would be weakened.

These concerns remain.

The voice of vulnerable workers

The Feast of St Joseph the Worker provides the opportunity to learn from the experiences of those workers who have already endured negative consequences of a changing labour market. What do vulnerable workers say about their ‘flexible’ working arrangements?

Casual work and young workers

For two decades, young workers have experienced the impact of the dramatic rise of casual employment, which now comprises one third of all paid work. This work is sometimes an opportunity to finance study or an entrée to full-time work. But for many it offers little hope of advancement and is characterised by poor wages and conditions, unreasonable hours and no training.

The Australian Young Christian Workers Movement has highlighted the growth of a ‘casual mentality’ among workers who have no say in their work arrangements and often fear the loss of work or conditions if they ‘rock the boat’.

With the work environment turning increasingly towards individual contracts in the form of Australian Workplace Agreements, the desire for job security on the part of the employee, the lack of bargaining skills among many young workers, and the possibility of intimidation on the part of the employer in negotiating agreements, makes the so-called ‘casual mentality' an issue of growing concern.2

While there are many exemplary employers who provide meaningful and rewarding jobs, market pressures and poor employment practices can easily undermine the working relationship.

Low-paid workers in precarious jobs

Vulnerable workers often experience contradictory pressures that limit the influence of employees in workplace relations. On one hand, the ease with which they can be laid off or have their hours reduced exposes them to periods in and out of employment. On the other, they are increasingly offered jobs with fewer conditions but the same level of expected obligation as in permanent work.

The ‘Clean Start’ campaign of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union is seeking to address the low pay and conditions of cleaners in the property services industry. Already on an average income of less than $15,000 pa, these workers are being pushed to intensify their workloads:

Each time the contract goes up for tender we worry about our jobs. Each time the contract changes I have watched the new contractor expect us to do the same work in less hours.3

Where contractors cut costs to win contracts, the most vulnerable of people can be easily exploited. For example, in order to secure a cleaning job, some are asked to undertake a month-long ‘training’ period where they work for no pay.

They just sent me around with another worker and got my labour for free. That’s not training. The training could really have happened in three or four days.

Workers and families in poverty

Researchers currently engaged in a ‘Low Pay Project’ claim that the number of ‘working poor’ in Australia has increased substantially over the past decade and shows no sign of a turnaround.  

In addition to the economic consequences of poverty, irregular hours can leave workers ‘time poor’ for family and other jobs. The pressure to supplement low family income with a cleaning job, for example, can see parents absent when their children are preparing for school or attending religious, social and sporting events. Excessive work demands undermine the stability of family life.

The difficulty of juggling multiple low-paying jobs is illustrated by a childcare worker seeking additional income as a cleaner:

My cleaning [job] is only relief… I had a set [childcare] shift where it was 7.30 to 2.30 every day… I was made to quit my [second] job so I could do rotating shifts… the times just don’t meet.4

These workers are unlikely to benefit from ‘family-friendly’ arrangements let alone ‘work-friendly’ ones as they struggle to achieve a family wage.

The Church will continue to provide a voice

One wonders how those workers with fewer skills, little bargaining power and no representation will cope in the cut and thrust of workplace negotiations.

The role of the Church in voicing its concern for vulnerable workers and families was challenged during the public debate about the ‘WorkChoices’ legislation. The wisdom to be gained from the lived experience of vulnerable workers is likely to be challenged similarly.

It is important to note the foundations on which the Church’s concerns are voiced.

The pastoral care of people in need in communities around Australia provides strong insight into the circumstances of low paid and unemployed workers and their families. As a major employer, the Church also draws on the expertise of Catholic industrial relations bodies at the national and diocesan levels, together with the opinion of other industrial relations experts in the analysis of legislation.

Fundamentally, it is the Church’s concern for the inherent dignity of the person that informs these views. For over a century, the Church has spoken of the central importance of work to the dignity of individuals and families and the foundation of a properly functioning society.

The person is the measure of the dignity of work. Adequate pay, fair conditions, the representation of industrially weak workers and the availability and security of work are the grounds on which the fairness of industrial relations is and will continue to be tested.

Most Rev Christopher Saunders
Bishop of Broome
Chairman, ACSJC


  1. Ian Watson, et al.,2003, Fragmented Futures: New Challenges in Working Life, The Federation Press, Annandale, pp.46-7
  2. Australian Young Christian Workers, 2005, From Money to Meaning: Young People and Work, Catholic Social Justice Series No.56, ACSJC, Sydney
  3. Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, 2006, A Clean Start for the property and services industry, Sydney.
  4. Helen Masterman-Smith, Robyn May, Barbara Pocock, 2006, Living Low Paid: Some Experiences of Australian Childcare Workers and Cleaners.

The ACSJC gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Dr Tim Battin, senior lecturer in political science, University of New England and the Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations.

For further information on ACCER’s work, visit