Teaching is one of the lowest-paid professions and casual relief teachers (CRTs) are among the most marginalised and exploited workers in Victoria.
Our daily pay rate is $293. Think that sounds good? Well, there are about 200 teaching days a year. If we were to work every one of those days, we would still earn less than $60,000 a year — that is the maximum pay we can expect, after a minimum of four years at university.
But we are emergency teachers; we can expect to work, at most, about 100 days. That is less than $30,000 a year.
We have no sick pay or paid leave and during the long summer break we are forced to seek other employment or suffer the indignity of applying for the dole. Out of our meagre income, we are expected to pay for our $180 teacher registration, and equipment such as books and stationary.
It is a requirement of registration for all teachers to complete a minimum of 100 hours of professional development classes every five years. Salaried teachers are usually paid to do this, but CRTs are expected to pay for this compulsory tuition themselves.
Our situation is growing steadily worse as job agencies take over the employment of CRTs. These agencies double dip with their fees, charging both teachers and employers — the schools — on a per-teacher, per-day basis. One rapidly-growing agency, ANZUK, pays teachers as little as $220 a day. That is a commission of $73 per teacher, per day, plus a hefty fee from the school.
They also place severe restrictions on a CRT's employment prospects. Contracts signed by the schools and agencies prohibit a school from employing an agency teacher unless that school “buys” the teacher from the agency at an exorbitant cost. In some cases, these contracts also prohibit schools from employing CRTs from outside the agency.
Working through an agency is not a choice CRTs make. When I moved to Melbourne, I was determined to avoid the agency rip off. I spent a week researching suitable schools online and on the phone, then spent five days and two tanks of petrol driving from school to school. This was followed by another couple of days of follow up calls and emails. My efforts netted me just three days work, after which I joined an agency.
Imagine what would happen if a foreign-owned agency siphoned off a quarter of the pay of salaried teachers? I'm guessing there would be some strikes called very quickly and every state school would be shut down until justice was restored, and the teachers reimbursed for their lost pay.
So, why does the Australian Education Union (AEU) allow us to be ripped off in this way? Why do the leaders of this union say and do nothing when school after school signs exploitative contracts with these agencies?
To be fair, the AEU regularly makes feeble protests about the agency rip off. They even include it in a list of demands when there is a strike. But the strike ends when the salaried teachers' needs are met.
The demands for CRT rights are, at best, an ambit claim to be bargained away or, at worst, a token gesture to keep us quiet. The government, the schools and the agencies all know they can raise their fees with impunity.
We depend on the union to stand up for our rights. Teachers with ongoing positions are already overworked and under-resourced, so there are limits to what they can do for us. Teachers on short-term contracts cannot do much, as anything they do that displeases their employer lessens their chance of getting another contract. CRTs are very limited in what we can do in terms of union activism, for we can be effectively sacked by a school and not even know about it.
This is why CRTs need help from the AEU, to organise and fight for some basic rights: the right to keep our pay, instead of sharing it with an agency; the right to be directly employed by a school, without interference from an agency; the right to a basic living income, including over the school holidays; the right to a “real” job if we want one, with ongoing employment and protection from arbitrary dismissal; and the right to have the agency fees that have already been taken from our pay reimbursed, with interest. These are basic rights that all workers deserve. The AEU is not standing up for these rights.