Flexible Work…Good Choice, or Only Option?

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Flexible Work…Good Choice, or Only Option?

When we started Chefs On The Run 30 years ago, our aim was to keep good chefs in the industry for longer. Given the hours and the culture, the prognosis for even the best chefs was quite often mid-40’s alcoholic burnout…

So we put together a group of true contracting chefs – the first in our industry – in a structure we called a “marketing collective”. The chefs came out marketing with us, found work for themselves as well as others and got to continue doing whatever work they wanted elsewhere, using our service to top up. We helped them set their businesses up properly and made sure they managed their invoicing, money collection and tax sensibly. They were heady days – and a lot of fun!

We started employing casual waiters, bar attendants, kitchen hands and catering assistants in our second year – contracting was never an option for people other than our trade-qualified chefs. Over the next decade, as business regulations became more complex, GST (and BAS) were introduced and workplace insurance became more of a challenge, we saw a steady transition of our contracting chefs to becoming casual employees, because they didn’t want to have the headache of regulatory compliance. By 10 years ago almost everyone working with us was an employee and we have just farewelled our last contractor – who had worked with us for 20 years.

So for the last 20 years we’ve had between 900 and 1,000 casual employees on our books each year. Right now, of course, the COVID-19 situation has decimated the hospitality side of our business and even the Aged Care & Health sector is only just starting to open its doors to external personnel again. So as I write this, we probably have 100 people at work. Hopefully that’s back nearer 500 by the end of the year!

Over the past 5 years or so, the number of full time positions available (in all sectors) has gradually reduced, at the same time as part-time and casual job numbers have increased. This has the potential to result in “under-employment” – where people are not technically unemployed, but can’t get as much work as they want. Whilst Hospitality & Catering has always been an industry where a significant proportion of employees work casually, there’s probably been an increase in underemployment in our sector as well – as operators look to cut costs to battle dwindling margins.

Casual work has certainly allowed many of our Brigade members to structure work around the rest of their lives. For some it means they can study and still earn enough money to pay the bills, due to the availability of ‘after-hours’ work. For others, it allows them to top up on their other position(s) – particularly at times when holidays or birthdays mean they want to earn a bit more. Our chefs are more likely to depend on a number of different gigs each week to provide hours similar to those they would have if they worked at one place full time, whilst many of the other Brigade members prefer more sporadic work to fit in with their other activities and commitments. All in all we think that the majority of our crew appreciate the flexibility – and the less “job security” there is in the workforce generally, the more attractive this flexibility starts to look. The only real problem with this arrangement is in situations like the one we currently find ourselves in, where there’s very little work for anyone and everyone struggles to make ends meet.

The only real down-side we see with casual work is the emergence of the so-called “gig economy” over the past few years. Its proponents say that it is legitimate for a market to offer what it is prepared to pay and for individuals to accept the offer, or not. However, our view is that if you don’t have the bargaining power that people who legitimately set themselves up in contracting businesses possess (usually those earning more and with a more white-collar background), all this new trend means is that people aren’t paid what they are entitled to under Australia’s employment laws. Working as a casual employee means you are insured in the workplace, your receive at least Award wages, penalties and allowances AND you are paid superannuation (which means you are at least saving some money for the future). Cash or “contract” deals where you look like you get more in your hand often don’t really work out that way. You aren’t insured if you injure yourself, you may not be able to show you are earning anything if you are needing a loan (because you can’t prove your income) and when you head to retirement, there will be nothing there to fund you in your later years. With pensions diminishing and becoming less and less easy to get – and live on – this is a significant consideration for every casual employee.

So, what price flexibility? In our view, there are many advantages to being a casual employee – largely due to the flexibility it provides you with. However, if the price you are asked to pay for flexibility is being at risk in terms of being uninsured, being paid less than you re entitled to – and not receiving superannuation to fund your retirement – it is a very high price to pay. If you can’t get as much work as you want – or a permanent or full-time position, then casual work allows you to pay the bills while you find something. If you’ve got work but need more, or need to find work that is available outside the hours you are committed to elsewhere, it’s also a good thing. But if you are going to give the person you work for the flexibility to engage you when they need you – rather than when you need work – make sure you are being paid properly!