The federal government has slashed the hours of thousands of its casual public servants and now it will not have to give them meal or tea breaks.
Workers who have spoken to Fairfax say the cut, to a maximum shift of five hours and as little as three, will see their families' incomes slashed by thousands of dollars each year.
The giant Department of Human Services, which employs the "intermittent and irregular employees" denies capping their hours and says it is making new shift offers based on "operational requirements".
But internal documentation shows casuals being told in early September that they could only be offered shifts of three, four or five hour durations and the change was being enforced nationally.
Many of the 3346 IIEs, who work mostly answering phones at Centrelink, Medicare or Child Support call centres, have been with the department for several years, many of them working full-time hours.
Their union says some employees have taken to working 14 days straight in a desperate bid to stem the loss of income from the hours cap.
The shift cap comes despite DHS significantly boosting its reliance on casuals, with the ranks of IIEs growing by 25 per cent in just 12 months.
Internal documentation shows supervisors casuals their new working arrangements means they are not entitled to breaks, although they can still have a five-minute "screen break" each hour.
"There are no tea breaks as an IIE as your longest shift is 5 hours so you would not be entitled," a group of new casuals in Melbourne were told by a supervisor on Monday.
"You are allowed a 5 min screen break every hour."
Other workers have been told the five hour maximum was "occurring nationally" although Fairfax understands there are locations where casuals' hours have not been capped.
The Community and Public Sector Union says the move is "pretty tough" on thousands of families around the country, many of them in regional Australia.
CPSU official Lisa Newman, said the there had been no consultation prior to the "edict".
"It was a decision that was taken with no consultation and its caused a lot of financial hardship, people have taken to working every day they can, just to pay their bills," Ms Newman said.
"The department says there's been a fall-off in work, but I have to say that is not evident...demand for services is as strong as ever."
Ms Newman said she suspected a "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" strategy was at play.
"Make people desperate for income and they'll be less picky about when they work," the union official said.
"These are casual workers and 85 per cent of them want some pathway to permanent secure jobs.
"A lot of them have been working as many hours as they can to become as competitive as possible for full time work, so for those people, this is a double-slap."
A DHS spokesman denied that hours had been capped.
"Intermittent and Irregular Employee (IIE) shifts have not been capped at five hours," he said in a statement.
"The department has always made, and continues to make, shift offers of varying duration based on operational requirements.
"These casual workers are engaged for varying periods, within existing budgets and in line with Australian Public Service recruitment guidelines and legislation.
"The number of rostered shifts a casual worker receives is not guaranteed (as is usually the case with casual workers in any workplace), varies, and is influenced by his or her skills and the workload demand."
Clarification: An earlier version of this article referred to casuals not getting paid for tea or lunch breaks. Such breaks were not paid before the five hour cap was imposed.
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