A parliamentary committee led by Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce has broken ranks with the Coalition to call on Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer to crack down on employers using labour hire arrangements to entrench long-term casual work.
The House standing committee on innovation, industry, science and resources has recommended a review of casualisation and labour hire, with a view to amending the Fair Work Act to prevent misuse, particularly in the mining industry.
The Coalition-dominated committee echoed Labor's policy approach, calling for a prohibition on "replacing directly employed, full-time workers with 'permanent casual' employees, and other similar casualised employee types".
"Changes to the act should also include provisions that guarantee that employees have a legal right to convert from casual to permanent employment after a set period of time," the report said.
It comes as Ms O'Dwyer intervenes on behalf of the Commonwealth in a casual worker test case brought by one of the nation's biggest labour hire firms, while upholding employer concerns about "double dipping".
Mr Joyce said the recommended changes were needed to stop fly-in, fly-out workers being deployed in regional towns, when locals could be hired instead.
"Fly-in, fly-out is the second best option to people living in the town," the former deputy prime minister said.
"If you fly in and fly out, then you fly out with the wealth of those extractive industries ... It's no good to Murrumba if you buy a house in the Gold Coast."
The place of casuals in Australia's workforce is highly contested, with employers and unions at loggerheads over whether the proportion of casual jobs is increasing.
The best data available shows that about a quarter of the nation's workforce is employed on a casual basis, the same as in 1998, with only minor fluctuations since.
But there has been a noticeable increase since 1992, when they made up 21.5 per cent of the workforce, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The committee chaired by Mr Joyce, with three other Nationals MPs - including George Christensen - sitting alongside three Labor MPs and two Liberals, was unanimous in its recommendations.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions seized upon the committee report in support of its campaign against the use of labour hire by mining companies, which the union peak body claims is "destroying good, secure jobs" in the sector.
"Australia already has one of the highest proportions of temporary labour in the OECD, and big mining companies are abusing loopholes in our laws to avoid respecting the basic rights of the people working for them," ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.
She said Coalition MPs "know they are toast at the election" if the Morrison government "continues to allow big business to casualise what should be good secure jobs".
CFMEU national president Tony Maher said mining companies were "trashing their social license to operate, like ripping off small businesses with unfair terms of trade".
Ms O'Dwyer last month asked the Federal Court to expedite the case between WorkPac and its former employee Robert Rossato, in which the mining industry labour hire firm seeks to clarify the definition of a casual worker and prevent "double dipping" on loadings and entitlements.
Employers fear that an earlier court decision, which found a truck driver employed as a casual through WorkPac at a Rio Tinto mine was entitled to annual leave, could expose them to backpay claims worth up to $8 billion across the nation's economy.
Mr Maher said the Federal Court had "exposed the rort of the 'permanent casual' model in mining" by deeming truck driver Paul Skene to be a full-time employee, despite WorkPac having hired him as a casual.
Ms McManus said the rules must be changed to "close the loopholes" and "a proper definition of casual" be added to the Fair Work Act.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has promised to introduce a new, stronger test for the definition of casual employment if Labor wins the coming federal election.
A spokesman for Ms O'Dwyer said the government would "carefully consider the recommendations in the committee’s report".
"Since October, most award-covered employees have had the right to request conversion from casual to permanent work after a set period of ongoing casual work," the spokesman said.
"This is an important right and we respect the Fair Work Commission’s decision that it should be extended to most award-covered workers."
Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott said the industry body was disappointed to see the committee "buy into divisive language and ill-informed campaigns against responsible and appropriate use of labour hire and casual employment arrangements".
"Labour hire is a very small part of the resources and energy workforce," Mr Knott said.
"Nonetheless these arrangements are essential for engaging skilled workers for short-term or contract work, particularly in the more cyclical, project-based areas of our industry.
"On major resources and energy projects, a reliable source of contract labour contributes to the efficiency and success of projects, which ultimately deliver great benefits to the Australian economy."
He said a modern economy needed "a wide range of engagement models" to give people "more flexibility in how, when and where they work".
Mr Joyce said there was a place for labour hire to recruit for short-term projects in remote areas like the Kimberley in Western Australia.
"But there should not be FIFO, or drive-in, drive-out workers, to Singleton, or Gunnedah, or Emerald," he said.