Violations of the Psychological Contract: Experiences of a Group of Casual Workers

Article excerpt


The escalating casualisation of the Australian workforce appears to be accompanied by increasing worker resentment of the employment relationship. This paper examines the extent of psychological contract violations perceived by casual workers. It follows an earlier paper in this journal which revealed that casual workers experience low job satisfaction and that needs from the relational contract were not being met. That research also suggested that psychological contracts were being violated to the point where workers developed negative dispositions towards managers and their organisations. This paper extends the previous work by investigating the perceptions of a larger sample of casual workers. Results confirm the earlier research, and more significantly reveal, that violations were perceived across most of the investigated work dimensions.


During the last two decades the number of people reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as working under 'casual' employment relationships trebled to 2.1 million, with the proportion to all workers doubling, to 26.4 per cent (Burgess & Mitchell 2001). It is predicted, that if current trends continue, one in three Australian workers will be employed casually by 2010. The demographic most affected by this shift in the labour market is people in the 15 to 19 year age group, where casual employment has risen from 38 per cent in 1988 to 66 per cent in 2001 (Watson, Buchanan, Campbell & Briggs 2003).

Research into the changing nature of the Australian employment landscape has attributed the increasing casualisation to a combination of political and economic factors, as well as specific employer strategies designed to improve competitive advantage by curbing labour costs and mitigating market uncertainty (Dawkins & Norris 1990, Walsh 1997, Campbell & Brosnan 1999, Standing 1999, Campbell & Burgess 2001, Hepworth & Murphy 2001, Watson, et al. 2003). Compared with permanent workers, casual workers have substandard rights, benefits and protection, plus substantial levels of precarious employment (Campbell 2000). Traditionally, casual pay rates included a loading intended, but not necessarily acting, as insulation against employer exploitation (Campbell 1996, Campbell & Burgess 1997), however, these financial conditions may be further eroded in Australia's new industrial relations environment (CCH 2006). Casual workers, therefore, are a significant, but disadvantaged proportion of workers in Australia who only have a fragile hold on their employment.

At the same time, employers seek a motivated, committed workforce, willing to display loyalty and enthusiasm in their duties. Indeed, the management literature has long reflected these issues (see for example, Herzberg 1966, Allen & Meyer 1990, Coopey & Hartley 1991, Hiltrop 1996). Whilst these issues may well concern many employers, their casual employees may not feel responsive to such desires. The focus of this study, therefore, centres on the perceptions and attitudes of casual workers with respect to their employment situation. An appropriate model for the investigation is the psychological contract (Rousseau 1995), by which means the feelings of employees can be measured. Of particular interest in the present context are those casual employees who are pursuing tertiary level studies.

The first stage of the research, which was reported in Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 2006, (Volume 14, Issue 2), evaluated a small group (n = 20) of casual employees using measures instituted by Millward and Hopkins (1998), and O'Brien, Dowling and Kabanoff (1978), together with semi-structured interviews. This earlier study revealed that casually employed university students regarded their employment relationship as essentially short term and based on transactional aspects of the psychological contract. This finding was not surprising given that students generally work only to meet their financial commitments whilst studying. …