The real engine room of the Cairns economy is under threat

by Michael Clifford, General Secretary, Queensland Council of Unions

Cairns might be eagerly awaiting the return of international tourists to turbocharge its economy but locals should pay attention to another group even more important to their region.

For all the media and political focus on tourism in Far North Queensland, it’s healthcare and social assistance workers that power the largest industry in this region.

Recent ABS labour force figures show this industry comprises 15.2 per cent of the workforce, compared with retail trade at 12.4 per cent accommodation and food services (tourism) at 10.1 per cent.

Unfortunately, healthcare and social assistance, like many other industries in Australia, are now under attack from the onslaught of insecure work.

Australians used to have the most stable, reliable jobs in the world. Jobs you could plan a life around.

But Federal government policies have made it easier for employers to put workers into casual employment  and keep them there.

More than one in four Australian workers are in insecure work with no access to sick leave or holidays but in Cairns that number is closer to one in three workers.

In Cairns more than 28 per cent of employees are casual (that is without paid leave entitlements) much higher than the rest of Queensland (23.6 per cent).

Casual work has expanded recently in Far North Queensland, while dropping in Queensland overall.

That means an increasing number of Cairns workers have jobs with less rights, low pay or simply not enough hours to make ends meet. Casual employment also means workers are often less inclined to speak up about workplace safety issues, such as bullying and harassment, or they will lose what work they have.

Insecure work hurts all of us. Workers in insecure work and on low pay can’t support their community and local businesses. About 97% of all businesses in Far North Queensland are small, making it vital that workers have the income and job security to support them.

“… an increasing number of Cairns workers have jobs with less rights, low pay or simply not enough hours to make ends meet”

Michael Clifford, QCU General Secretary

Insecure work has also made it harder for communities to fight the pandemic. Workers lacking job security and fair pay will face greater barriers to take time off work to get tested and isolate or vaccinated if they are under serious financial stress and lack job security.

Many of them are the same frontline workers keeping the country running, but at higher risk of contracting the virus. This will be an acute challenge for Far North Queensland, should Covid-19, and especially the Delta variant take hold in the region.

Queensland Unions have been campaigning to ensure governments make it a priority that Australians have secure jobs they can rely on.

The “Secure Jobs worth fighting for” campaign has identified Leichhardt, the federal electorate around Cairns, as a region where insecure work is having a major impact on the lives of workers and their families.

Unions fought and won for laws to shut down dodgy labour hire operators, as well as tougher punishments for wage theft in Queensland. We’re fighting for stronger laws to prevent sexual harassment.

Having a secure and reliable job means workers can make long-term decisions about the financial future of their families, and the local Cairns community benefits from that certainty.

As we approach a critical federal election, workers need to find out more about this important issue, and how they can fight for secure jobs and the benefits they bring for workers and their families.

International tourists add extra to the economy but it’s been our workers in essential industries like healthcare who have kept the economic motor running. They deserve a secure future too.

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