THE rise of "casual" employment - and not only in the coal industry - poses some of the most vexing questions facing workplace standards in this country.
Once used only in a "peripheral" sense in mining, labour hire has taken hold to the point where some 35 per cent of the region's mine workers are employed as "casuals".
As the Newcastle Herald has revealed through a series of reports stretching back seven years, these mining "casuals" do the same work on the same set rosters as their permanently employed colleagues, but are paid - on the latest figures - more than 30 per cent less, and with no holiday or sick pay.
IN THE NEWS:
What's more, the relevant industry award says "staff" - not mineworkers - are the only ones to be employed casually.
Discontent over this situation triggered class actions - some involving the Mining and Energy Union, and some not - launched to retrieve hundreds of millions of dollars in alleged underpayment.
Similar cases followed in retail and other sectors.
The burgeoning "gig" economy - with a business model that tends to undercut traditional wage costs - was also targeted.
And as the Herald also revealed, employment contracts indicate the federal government is Australia's biggest user of labour hire.
State and territory governments have also embraced indirect employment. These practices must inevitably alter the nature of the public service.
Lobbied by employers, One Nation and the Coalition joined last March to retrospectively amend employment definitions in the Fair Work Act.
A High Court case brought by a labour hire firm and supported by the government went the employer's way in August.
As we report today, those outcomes have put paid to at least some class actions. Others, though, appear to remain on foot.
For all the talk of double-dipping, it is not disputed that casual coalminers earn a third less for their labours.
Wherever the 25 per cent casual loading is, it does not seem to be in their pay packets.
The High Court says it's the contract that counts, and what happens afterwards is secondary.
Maybe so, but with the union movement pushing "same job, same pay" as an election issue, workplace fairness is a hot topic.
Employers will always try to reduce costs, but for economists and politicians worrying about persistently low wages growth, the answer may well be there in front of them.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.