Tribune column, 25 July 2003

 I’ve just been informed that I’m going to be laid off. No, not by Tribune (you’ll all be pleased to know), but by one of my other employers, The Guardian, for which I work casual shifts on the comment page.

There won’t be any work for me, I was told, in September or October.

I’m hardly heartbroken: I’ve plenty of other work, and I think the Guardian will have me back. What gets me, however, is the reason I’m being laid off: the legislation passed by Tony Blair’s government that gives workers the right to appeal against unfair dismissal after a year of continuous employment.

Worried by the prospect that the legislation will be used by a large number of casuals to claim permanent jobs – we are hired by the day and have no security of employment – the newspaper’s management (like that of several other papers and magazines) has decided that no casuals should be allowed to work 12 months in a row. The rule now is that, once a year, every casual has to take two months off – and my time is up. Although that isn’t a major hassle for me, hundreds of others whose sole source of income is casual shifts are having to take a substantial annual pay cut or find work with other newspapers or magazines.

It makes no difference if we protest that we have no intention of taking up our rights to employment protection or if we insist that we actually prefer our casual status to permanent employment: we’re simply told that company policy is company policy.

Even signing a legally binding waiver – “I promise that I won’t claim a proper job”, or words to that effect – is not an option these days: that is one of the things that has been ruled out since 1997.

A defender of the legislation would argue that our problem is down to the attitude of management, and there is a lot of truth in this. On one hand, they are undoubtedly trying cynically to resist giving permanent positions to a few people who have been casuals for ages and are to all effects and purposes doing a permanent job, but without the rights. On the other, they are working on the assumption that casuals are queuing up for permanent jobs, which is patently not the case: if they trusted their workers more, they would find that the catastrophe they fear isn’t round the corner at all.

But this is not the whole story. The union most casuals belong to is the National Union of Journalists. And, like most unions, it is historically committed to decasualisation as a policy – and refuses to recognise that there is a problem with it. Its priority remains to get permanent jobs for the small number of its casual members who want them, rather than defend the now much larger number of casuals who prefer to remain that way. The argument that the union should be backing both groups falls on deaf ears.

Why this is I’m not quite sure, but the attitude at NUJ headquarters seems to be that casuals who don’t want permanent jobs are suffering from some kind of petty-bourgeois false consciousness. The advantages of staying casual – that you can pick when you work and when you don’t, and that you don’t get saddled with all the dull administration and the culture of “presenteeism” that are the staffer’s lot – simply don’t register.

Now, I’m aware that employers using casual labour to evade their responsibilities are, in the grand scheme of things, a bigger problem than well-paid casual workers who value autonomy above security having to adjust their annual routines. There is, however, an important point of principle here that goes far beyond the little world of newspapers and magazines.

The “labour-market flexibility” this government enthuses about is largely a matter of employers being allowed to operate hire-and-fire policies. But some sorts of labour-market flexibility are good for workers – and unions should recognise it.

In a time of full employment and labour shortages, such as our own, many people recognise that the demand for their labour is such that they can earn a decent living without having to buckle under to the demands of a proper job. Working freelance or casual is not necessarily second-best to permanent employment: it can be a positive choice that gives you more control over your everyday life.

There is a simple solution: the government could legislate to reinstate the provision allowing casuals and short-term contract employees to sign a simple form waiving their employment rights. Something tells me that the unions would recoil in horror at such a move.

But has anyone got a better idea?

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