It’s been a few days since I’ve written anything here, though not because there’s been a shortage of things about which to write. In no particular order I intend over the next couple of days to write posts about why government has to lead, not follow, the electorate; how China and the developing world shows us why we still need unions (and yes, I know I’ve discussed this before but it’s a message that’s worth repeating, this time with even more facty facts!); why de-prioritising surgical repair of fractured hips in the elderly is not only inhumane but wasteful; and a return to the devastation the Baillieu government’s budget cuts are having on Victoria’s public health system.

Today, though, I’ve been inspired by a tweet:

Mrs Clair Awesome @Clairzilla: Good grief. @TaraNipe are you onto this? [link]… #AusPol

Well now, how can I resist such an appeal?

In November The Age wrote about Joseph Brown, who was contracted by Parks Victoria in April as part of a workforce conducting controlled burn offs to reduce fuel load. While performing this work Joe was badly injured – he sustained damage to three organs, as well as rib fractures, and his family was told he may not survive. Though he received WorkCover during this time, he was considered ineligible for further work this summer.

I don’t know Joe, though I do follow him on Twitter, which is how I know that he was a volunteer with the CFA for 5 years before working seasonally as a fire fighter for the Victorian government, and had hoped to make this seasonal work his career. As a direct result of this incident which, despite medical certification that he’s fit to work, has ended his career, Mr Brown is currently homeless – see an MX article on Joe here.

There are several way to discuss Joe’s case.I could look at the disparity between what the Baillieu government says about front line workers and respect for fire fighters, and how this fine verbiage is unsupported by their actions.

I could, as my colleague does over at A WorkCover Victim’s Diary, emphasise the WorkCover aspect – I don’t know any way to describe “eight or nine calls a day while I was still seriously injured” except as harassment.

I could muse on the implications of the non-disclosure agreement Joe was asked to sign, in exchange for a week’s pay.

But instead, as is evident from the title, I’m going to talk about how the fact that Joe was hired as a seasonal worker left him with few rights, no money, and no protection.

I’ve written about the perils of insecure work before – two and a half weeks ago I briefly discussed the issue, and in October I covered the National Union of Workers’ Fluro Fightback event, part of the ACTU’s wider campaign against insecure work.

In both those posts I spoke in generalities about the negative big picture effects of contracted work – that while there’s a place for flexibility, as an employment strategy we achieve short-term profitability only at an untenable long-term cost, for employees, companies and society. What I failed to address was the cost to individuals.

Had Joe been a Parks Victoria employee he’d have had a job when he was fit to return to work. Had that work not been forthcoming, or had he been told there might be work available if he were prepared to travel for three and a half hours, he’d have had recourse under our employment laws to fight.

As a seasonal worker none of that’s the case. Not only that, it sounds as though it’s possible his injuries, sustained while working, have actively stood in the way not just of employment this season, but of his career. And in the interim he’s not only had no recourse to legal avenues but has no length of service, no accrued leave, no reliable and sustained super, and is now (hopefully only temporarily) homeless.

Homelessness is closely tied to insecure work, and is a growing problem in Australia – despite our world-record economy, the number of homeless Australians has increased by 17% since 2007. This is not unrelated to the fact that, with the exception of Spain, we also lead the world in our incidence of casual labour hire.

Most people, when hearing about insecure work, think of manual labour, fruit picking and other less-skilled roles. According to the Working Australia Census 2011:

Two thirds (65.7%) have a tertiary qualification; 17.2% have a certificate or diploma; 6.9% an apprenticeship. • The main occupations are; Professional (62.5%); Technician and Trade Worker (9.8%); Manager (8.5%). [source – p. 10]

As I’ve written previously, I was shocked to hear that over 50% of newly graduated teachers are on short-term contracts. And, as health care budgets across the Liberal-Premier’d states are slashed and burned, most of this years’ graduate nurses, those fortunate few to get a year at all (and more on that tomorrow), will not have ongoing positions either. A friend of mine has worked at a TAFE for over ten years – she’s a manager, and is finishing up her sixth contract – though she ought to have been made permanent after three.

But, whether doctor or brickie, manager or farm hand, educator or fire fighter, this pursuit by employers of an insecure workforce harms us all. We’re harmed as a society – vulnerable workers who don’t know how or if they can provide for themselves or their families next week don’t spend, and that hurts the economy. They don’t earn the same as those working alongside them, and they miss out on many conditions, and that’s injust.

If you have rent to pay, children to feed, or even bills that will drown you if they’re not met, then taking time off just isn’t an option. People who work sick are more likely to make mistakes – and in many industries those mistakes harm others.

I admit that I’m an idealist – for me it’s the injustice that’s a motivating factor for change.

But I’m also a realist, and I appreciate that for business owners and fiscally minded governments, fairness isn’t an operating business model. So try this – temporary staff don’t have the same experiential knowledge of your workplace, your staff, your culture and the way things need to be done. They don’t have loyalty, because they receive none from you. The training you invest won’t necessarily be repaid in increased productivity; the training you don’t provide means slower work, less safe workplaces, and a far bigger likelihood of errors. Staff who don’t know if they’ll have work tomorrow aren’t more likely to participate in long-term projects, to bring you innovate ideas, to think in their own time and come up with solutions. They won’t develop a rapport with your service base.

Casualised workforces are indicative of Australia’s current dominant attitude: short-term financial gain is prioritised, regardless of the long-term costs to individuals, to society as a whole, and to employers themselves.

I couldn’t find any stats for Australia, but in the US some two-thirds of Americans are living from pay check to pay check, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that things aren’t that different here. What that means is that there’s a tiny line for most of us between the life we take for granted, and genuine hardship, including the very real risk of homelessness.

With fewer workers than ever belonging to unions, a fact not unrelated to the growing incidence of casualised work, there’s a higher risk that any of our jobs can change. And with the percentage of impermanent work increasing every year, the likelihood’s high that your kids will face a future where they can’t qualify for a credit card, let alone a home loan.

Insecure work is bad for all of us – just ask Joe.