Casualised staff who have taught regular courses for several years at the University of Sydney were among thousands who received an email yesterday informing them that they were ineligible for conversion to permanent employment.
The University made an offer of conversion to only 69 staff out of 4,173 total staff assessed in its review, meaning only 1.6% of casuals will gain secure employment.
Staff have been left feeling “outraged” by the pro forma rejection emails, which provide vague copy-and-pasted reasons for why the University declined the offer.
The USyd Casuals Network has suggested that this may be an illegal contravention of the Fair Work Act, which requires the employer to specify details for why an employee is ineligible for conversion.
The emails were sent to inform staff of the outcome of a review the University took following an amendment to the Fair Work Act in March this year.
The legislation now requires that employees offer conversion to casual staff where they have worked for at least 12 months and have worked a regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis during at least the last six months of that time.
A University spokesperson said that “Given the sessional and seasonal nature of much of our work, the majority of our casual workforce do not have a regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis and therefore did not receive offers.”
However, casual staff who have worked for years teaching regular courses every semester have been told they are ineligible, leading some to question what conditions would even make it possible for a staff member to gain secure employment.
“There are very large loopholes in the legislation and those are loopholes that management is eager to exploit … They may even be breaking the legislation and the NTEU is taking it very seriously,” NTEU casuals’ representative Dani Cotton said.
In an administrative oversight, at least one staff member was sent the email despite having already been offered a conversion. Early this year, Toby Fitch took the University to Fair Work over an application to conversion to a continuing position and won, settling out of court.
“If the University took this new legislation seriously, it would be making a more genuine attempt to meet its obligations to its precarious staff members,” Dr Fitch said.
“However, for all the noise the University makes about leadership and how good an employer they are, I think this is a new low and a cynical avoidance of the Uni’s obligations to employ people properly.”
“Not only is the University systematically underpaying its casual staff, it is denying those already working in clearly ongoing roles their industrial rights. This could really damage the University’s reputation as a world class education employer.”
The NTEU and USyd Casuals Network are currently pursuing a claim demanding back pay for six years of unpaid work in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, after an audit found evidence that 90% of participants had performed unpaid work.
Dani Cotton urged the thousands of staff who were denied permanent work to fight back: “We must redouble the determination behind our current fight for an enforceable and workable permanency clause, but to have a chance, we’ll need casuals to join the union.”
In the current round of industrial bargaining, the NTEU is pushing for stronger permanency clauses to go into the Enterprise Agreement to combat the University’s exploitation of an unpaid and underpaid casualised workforce.
Staff noted the irony that the rejection emails were sent out en masse during RUOK Day, which the University promoted on its social media.
Editor’s note: Updated 4:30pm to reflect the fact it may be in contravention of the Fair Work Act, not the Enterprise Agreement.