A new report from the Australia Institute found that employers are stealing more hours from their workers than ever. The average employee now provides eight full-time weeks of free work per year, equating to about 6.13 hours of unpaid work each week. It’s quite a jump from the 5.25 hours of unpaid work per week reported in 2020 and the 4.62 in 2019 and is costing employed Australians $461.60 each per fortnight.
The main culprit (apart from the companies and businesses themselves)? COVID-19.
The pandemic, which forced many to adopt a work-from-home (WFH) lifestyle, ‘appears to have accelerated Australia’s time theft crisis’ with approximately a quarter of workers experiencing an increase in their employer’s expectations of their availability during the pandemic.
Worryingly, 39% also report that their employers are using new technologies, like webcams and keystrokes, to pressure and monitor employees.
Although WFH has worked for some, for others it made the situation worse. Before COVID, employers could only reach their workers outside of ‘office hours’ through email or instant message. Now, ‘we’re seeing further incursion of work into people’s personal time and their privacy’ and a blurring of lines between home and work lives (Nahum, 2021), making it easier for many employers to undercut minimum standards around hours, penalty rates and overtime.
Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, men were more likely to get the flexibility to discharge increased caring responsibilities from their employer and retain the same pay (53%), compared to women (46%) (Australia Institute, 2021).
The report also revealed that the demographic performing the most unpaid overtime – about 8 hours every week – were young Australians aged 18-29. Young people are more likely to be employed in casual, insecure work where they feel at-risk of getting shifts cut or even fired if they speak up about it (Triple J Hack, 2021). And it’s no wonder why – over half of casual workers (58%) reported that their hours had been cut because of COVID-19 (Australia Institute, 2021).
Concentrations of young workers are greatest in industries where time theft is common and at times expected, like hospitality and retail. Often, this presents in the form of opening and closing without pay and ‘training’ days or exercises that go unpaid.
But the issue isn’t confined to one industry. Workers have been reporting this from the hospitality, education, truck driving, vet nursing, accounting, and disability support sectors.
So, how can time theft and unpaid work be reduced so that employed Australians aren’t working overtime without proper financial reimbursement?
Dan Nahum says it’s up to policymakers to strengthen the power of workers to demand reasonable, stable hours and fair payment. He says during a time of significant economic fragility and uncertainty around consumer confidence, we must ensure that employees and young people are being fully compensated for their work, not just for the recovery of the Australian economy, but for workers and their families. Regulators and policymakers must also protect worker’s privacy from invasive technology that monitors their every keystroke.
We must protect the rights of young, employed Australians who are particularly vulnerable to unpaid overtime and strengthen efforts to close the gender pay gap.