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Casual university staff speak on precarious employment before Senate Committee

The ‘uberisation’ of universities was criticised for degrading education and the lives of staff.

Representatives from the Casualised, Unemployed & Precarious Uni Workers AU (CUPUW) spoke to the Senate Select Committee on Job Security today. The Committee was established in December 2020 to inquire into the impact of insecure or precarious employment on workplace rights and conditions, the economy and wages.

Speakers Dr Yaegan Doran, Dani Cotton, and Morgan Jones presented evidence on the impact insecure work had on their lives and on the quality of education for students.

The financial, personal, educational and health impacts of job insecurity

Up to 74% of staff in several universities including the University of Sydney are on casual or fixed-term contracts. The CUPUW representatives decried the ‘enormous’ financial instability faced by casual staff who are underpaid at an average of $2521 per person every six weeks, as shown in a report by the USyd Casuals Network last year.

“When we’re dealing with [wage theft of] a few hundred dollars every week, that’s people’s rent,” Dr Doran — who has been working as a casual at universities for ten years — told the Committee. “By virtue of being insecure we are completely in flux in terms of what is going to happen to us.”

The impact of precarious employment on casual staff has repercussions on the learning conditions of students, Dr Doran elaborated. “I got my contract for this semester on a Wednesday to teach a course of 100 students starting the next Monday. That is very little time to prepare something of quality.”

Cotton also explained how casualisation affects the quality of education that staff are able to deliver, explaining how tutors who need work are often “thrown around” into disciplines they have no knowledge in. “The education that we’re trying to give — and that’s really what drives us — is being destroyed, and it feels like our future livelihoods are also being destroyed at the same time,” Cotton said.

Jones, who is a casual at the University of Melbourne and does manual labor as part of their work, explained that casualisation not only has financial, personal and educational impacts; it has health risks too.

“We often have to take on a lot of work in small amounts of time because we know that we have a month or two months of no work coming up.” Jones said. They recalled a time last year where they put in extra work and received a back injury which took two months to recover from. “Being casual, there’s no paid sick leave for that.” It’s common practice to work while unwell, because for casual staff not working puts their income at serious risk.

Solving the casualisation crisis at universities

Moving forward, the CUPUW speakers told the Committee of four ways the situation could be improved: the abolition of piece rates, legislation that mandates conversion of long-term casual staff to permanent roles, increased funding to universities, and opening up the ability to strike.

Dr Doran explained that he does not expect university managers to “self-correct” as they have a strong financial incentive to employ casuals and the issues have been put to them many times already and nothing has changed. He revealed that acting Vice-Chancellor Stephen Garton justified growing casualisation under the guise of difficulties in finding permanent staff, “a week after he personally denied the conversion of a long-term casual staff member who had appealed to him.”

The CUPUW representatives argued that opening up the ability for industrial action was one of the only ways to push back after over 17,000 staff lost their jobs at universities in 2020, most of them casual. It is expected that there will be strikes organised at USyd this year with the renewal of the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

Dr Doran argued for creating incentives and a regulatory framework that forces universities to make their staff permanent, rather than employing three quarters of them as insecure workers. “Permanency should be the absolute standard. It needs to be difficult and expensive to keep casuals as casual,” Dr Doran said.

Importantly, they added that more government funding to universities is needed so that university managers can’t rely on funding limitations as justification for underpaying casual staff.