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“A better university is possible”: NTEU protests casualisation crisis

The protest follows mounting rebukes of managements’ treatment of casual staff, including investigations into wage theft across 21 universities.

Photo courtesy of Mehreen Faruqi.

The Sydney Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) held a protest yesterday at the Quadrangle lawns on unceded Gadigal land to fight against the crisis of casualisation at universities.

Corresponding with heightened public attention to skyrocketing levels of job insecurity and wage theft in the higher education sector, protesters included NTEU members from USyd, UTS and UNSW, student activists, and Senator Mehreen Faruqi.

NTEU Casuals Representative Dani Cotton, who chaired the protest, read out demands for an end to underpayment and wage theft, conversion rights for casual staff, and increased funding for universities.

The protest follows community outrage after the University of Sydney sent thousands of pro forma emails to casual staff refusing them conversion to permanent employment in September this year.

Cotton said that these emails amounted to the University telling over 4000 casuals “your work over the years is not deserving of ongoing job security [or] respect.”

The University also faces a $2 million wage theft claim, on top of $12.75 million in underpayment admitted to in September.

NTEU NSW Secretary Damien Cahill commended the efforts of casual NTEU members at USyd for bringing public attention to casualisation, which has been a sector-wide issue for years: “We’ve got a massive opportunity in this round of enterprise bargaining… to push back against the tide of insecure employment.”

“There is no legal barrier to the Vice-Chancellor — tomorrow if he wanted to — converting all casual hours, all fixed-term hours into ongoing contracts.”

“They [University management] won’t do it because they’re addicted to insecure work,” Cahill continued. “It’s central to their business model, it’s central to their cost minimisation strategies and it’s central to their risk mitigation strategies.”

The protest featured Senator Mehreen Faruqi, who also congratulated the USyd Casuals Network for their courage in sharing their stories at multiple Senate inquiries: “It’s beyond time that we said ‘enough is enough.’”

Faruqi said that universities today are at a “crossroads” and could either go down the “track of further corporatisation, austerity and job insecurity,” or “forge a new path where [they] are equitable and democratic.”

“We know that wage theft is not just an aberration or a mistake. It is systemic,” she said. “A better university is possible.”

Photo courtesy of Mehreen Faruqi.

Lucy Nicolls, who has been a casual tutor in the Department of Philosophy for the last six years, said: “This university owes me tens of thousands of dollars in stolen wages, and I know that my experience is shared by so many casuals.”

“This is why we are saying the University of Sydney is in the grip of a crisis of casualisation, a crisis of systemic underpayment, a crisis of exploitation, and a crisis of systemic disrespect… this story is the same at universities across Australia,” Nicolls said.

Natalia Maystorovich, an Early Career Researcher, spoke to how the exploitation of casual staff makes a work-life balance non-existent, disputing management’s insistence that going above-and-beyond is a ‘choice’:

“We either punish students by doing a half-assed job or we accept that we will not be adequately remunerated for our work.”

“While the University claims that this is our choice, they fail to acknowledge the structures that ensure our compliance: if I do a poor job, there’ll be no work next semester.”

Photo courtesy of Maddie Clark.

SRC Education Officer Maddie Clark spoke in solidarity with staff from the perspective of students, who witness first-hand the unpaid hours put in by casuals responding to late night emails and providing adequate feedback for assessments.

“We know who actually runs the University… It’s the people who we’re standing with today: the tutors, the casuals and students. We have the power to actually stop work and to bring these people [management] to their knees and to win.”

“We will stand with you next year through striking, we will stand with you on the picket lines and we support you. Our fight is the same,” Clark said.

Protesters joined together for chants such as “Mark Scott! Shame on you! Pay casuals for the work they do!” before marching to the F23 Michael Spence Building.