Casuals now make up about half of the academic workforce in Australia’s universities. For most of them it is precarious work at its worst.
Those lucky enough to get two 13-week sessional contracts a year are unemployed academics for the other half of the year, forced to then compete with a growing precariat for temporary employment elsewhere while still at the call of their part-time employer. And the 13 weeks are not necessarily standard 35-hour weeks, they can be for as little as one hour a week.
These conditions are often expressed in enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs). At Macquarie University in Sydney, for example, the EBA has a clause that contains the provision that casual staff members will have no expectation of continuing employment.
This raises serious obstacles for the way in which casuals can take part in EBA negotiations to improve their often abysmal working conditions.
A recent decision of the Federal Court concerning EBA negotiations at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne has resulted in a victory for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which claimed that that the university stacked a staff ballot on a proposed EBA.
The NTEU opposed the EBA but it was accepted by a narrow majority of 57 votes out of the 2005 votes cast. The union argued that Swinburne management had allowed casuals who barely worked at the university, and had no intention of working there in the future, to not only vote but had encouraged them to do so by the offer of a $250 sign-on bonus.
The Federal Court rejected Swinburne’s argument that any casual employed at the university in the 12 months prior to the ballot should be eligible to vote. It determined that a casual must be working at the university in the seven days leading up to the ballot in order to meet voting qualifications.
In doing so, the court validated the union’s claim that Swinburne’s action was not about enfranchising casuals but an attempt to diminish the terms and conditions of employment of their workforce.
But if the precedent is applied to casual workers across all industries it offers employers the opportunity of manipulating workplace ballots by not offering work to casuals in the seven days leading up to a vote. A small number of permanent employees could be offered an agreement that enhances their pay and conditions but diminishes those of casuals.
The casuals would have no say in the matter even though they may have worked continuously for six months prior to the week leading up to the ballot. They could then be offered employment on lesser pay and worse conditions immediately after the ballot.
As Dr Karina Luzia, research assistant at Macquarie University is reported as saying: “It is critical that all staff members get the chance to vote, bearing in mind that for casually employed staff, theirs will be a vote for working conditions they may never get to enjoy or reap the full benefits of because of their insecure employment status.’’
Casuals in the university sector, and elsewhere, need more job security, not less. To this end the NTEU has been pursing enterprise agreements that convert casual jobs into more permanent positions.
The union had a previous agreement with Swinburne to do precisely this but the university management is now disputing it. In a slowing economy, insecure work will inevitably increase. It is now such an institutionalised part of the Australian labour market that it is difficult to reverse, but if there is no concerted effort from the labour movement to do so it can only increase.
The ALP national conference over the last weekend in July is said in the party’s promotional material to be critical in setting out key priorities for the immediate future. Limiting insecure employment should be one of them. As half of the delegates are from the union movement it might be expected to get a run, but it would be wise not to put any money on it.
[John Rainford is a member of the Socialist Alliance]