Activists push to end casualisation at Sydney University

October 15, 2021
Image: Green Left

University of Sydney (USyd) casual workers launched a $2 million wage theft claim against university management on October 15.

Eighty casual staff in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), supported by the USyd Casuals Network and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), are claiming remuneration for unpaid academic work.

They are seeking redress for six years of unpaid marking and administration, which the union claims is due to ongoing breaches of the Enterprise Agreement.

A formal grievance letter has been sent to the university management, along with the 80 individual claims of underpayment.

The staff assert they were underpaid $2,090,559 for marking and administration. If all 2455 casuals currently employed in FASS have been similarly underpaid, this could mean wage theft of up to $64 million in the arts faculty alone.

A week of action against casualisation took place from November 1–5 and the Casuals Network has launched an open letter and invited staff, students and supporters to sign on.

The letter says that “Despite management’s stated commitment to reducing casualisation, casuals now make up an unprecedented 52% of the workforce” at the university.

“These jobs are ‘casual’ in name alone: work performed by casuals is essential and ongoing in nature. Every year casualised staff teach tens of thousands of classes, mark tens of thousands of assignments and undertake tens of thousands of hours of administrative work.

“Instead of being recognised for their contribution, casuals are continually targeted for job cuts, denied a path to permanency through conversion, and subjected to systemic wage theft.”

The Casuals Network is demanding: “That casuals be paid for every hour of work at the correct rate of pay; back paid all stolen wages; and that the right to conversion be extended to all academic and professional casuals who have worked any two out of the previous three semesters.”

The letter highlights the ongoing precarity for casualised staff. “Many are kept on casual contracts for years and are forced to re-apply for their jobs every 6 months with no certainty of renewal.”

Hope of permanency was extinguished for 4103 casuals in September when they received identical form letters from management rejecting their requests for conversion. “Each individual received the same generic reason for rejection: ‘your pattern of work does not meet the eligibility criteria for conversion to continuing employment’.

“With one mass email, management consigned thousands of its casual employees to ongoing precarity.”

The network and the NTEU audited casual workers in Semester 2 last year. The final report, The Tip of the Iceberg, revealed that 90% of participants completed unpaid work, which averaged 28 minutes of unpaid work for every hour of paid work.

“Management claimed in an email to FASS casuals on October 7 that allegations of wage theft were based on a ‘mistaken belief’ that casual staff were ‘entitled to be paid for any time spent at their discretion and choice, rather than as required by the University’,” the open letter said.

“This remark indicates the systemic disrespect shown to casualised staff at USyd. It is outrageous to suggest that lecture attendance, marking, student consultation, communication and meeting attendance is discretionary time volunteered by casual staff.

“While management has repeatedly dismissed the concerns of staff and students about the ongoing impacts of casualisation, we — as USyd staff, students and supporters — demand that the crisis of exploitative casualisation end.”

[Sign the open letter here. You can access the USyd Casuals Network's reports into wage theft here, and follow them on Facebook or Twitter @CasualsUsyd.]

[Georgie Dixon* is a pseudonym. They are a casualised worker at the University of Sydney.]

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