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The Australian Federal Government has grossly over estimated the cost of the Jobkeeper program. It was estimated to cost about $130 billion, but the actual figure is likely to be about half that amount. The government said that about 6 million people were benefitting from the program, when in actuality it is only about 3 million. The government plans to offset the accounting error against the forthcoming deficit, but many people are calling for the scheme to be widened to include those who have not been eligible under the current criteria, specifically casual staff. Casual workers including many in the arts sector have been forced onto unemployment benefits and arts institutions are closing.
In exquisite timing, the Federal Court made a ruling on Thursday that casual workers who have regular and predictable shifts are entitled to permanent employee status and benefits, and should be classified as permanent. Over many years job insecurity has risen dramatically due to the casualisation of the work force. Casuals have been entitled to higher pay rates to offset lost benefits, but with wage growth at a virtual standstill, and their lack of bargaining power, this extra amount has in many cases, partially or completely evaporated. Not to mention the many companies that have recently been exposed for underpaying their employees.
The JobKeeper scheme is due to finish in September. If we are hit by a second wave of COVID-19, or if some businesses are still closed, or struggling, there may be a need to extend it beyond that time frame, but at this stage the government is holding firm to the September deadline and not extending it to ‘casual’ staff. The government is considering an appeal against the Federal Court decision, but are under mounting pressure to extend JobKeeper to casuals and other workers who were not eligible.
The government can’t keep using the excuse that the budget won’t stretch that far, which was their original argument against extending the payment to casual workers. We now know that they have plenty of elastic, and according to the Federal Court, these workers should never have been classified as casual in the first place. I don’t think the government can wriggle out of this one.