A new approach is needed in labour market policy that would place the dignity of the worker at the centre of deliberations on pay and conditions, says Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Bishop Christopher Saunders.

Issuing the annual Pastoral Letter for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker (1 May), Bishops Saunders said, "In a developed nation such as Australia, one would imagine that our wealth and the organisation of our labour market would ensure low paid, vulnerable workers and their families could live in basic dignity. Sadly, this is often not the case.

"Over the past three decades, this nation has witnessed monumental changes in the labour market which have included increasing risks of unemployment and insecurity. While Australia boasts an unemployment rate of around five per cent, up to one quarter of employees are in casual employment. The number is likely to be much higher when the use of fixed-term contracts, independent contractors and labour hire agencies is taken into account.

"More people are having to work outside normal hours, on weekends, juggling round-the-clock shift work or balancing multiple jobs. Families relying on low and insecure wages are falling into poverty. For many parents the "flexibility' of casual or contract work has not helped achieve a work-life balance, but has become an obstacle to normal family living', Bishop Saunders said.

The Pastoral Letter shows how the casualisation of work has not been confined to a few sectors, but ranges widely across retail, accommodation, health and social services, education, transport, construction and manufacturing industries.

"It is unacceptable that people who work to clothe us, feed us, clean for us, teach us and tend to the sick and those in need should endure poor conditions and have such a low value placed upon their work. It is time to consider the need for more decent pay and conditions for those in insecure work,' Bishop Saunders concluded.