Australian universities have converted only 1% of casual staff to permanent roles since amendments to the Fair Work Act, the union says

Australian universities have converted only 1% of casual staff to permanent roles since amendments to the Fair Work Act, the union says
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  • The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) says only 1% of casual university staff have been offered permanent positions since a new law was passed.
  • An amendment to the Fair Work Act in March mandated that casual staff who meet two criteria be offered full-time or permanent part-time positions.
  • Dr Alison Barnes, national president of the NTEU told Business Insider Australia that the exposure of the gap between strengthened Fair Work legislation and university practices reflected the Morrison government’s failures to address insecure work in the sector.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

The education union has revealed Australian universities have converted only 1% of casual staff to permanent roles in the six months since labour laws changed, amid a push to bring workers back into the fold post-pandemic.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) says that, out of 11,300 staff at the University of Melbourne, only 112 have been offered permanent roles. 

It comes amid a period of flux for the unions that represent the higher education sector, as compromises made to protect full time staff during the pandemic persist as the country reopens and universities scale up operations. 

In an email sent to union members several months ago, the NTEU reported that at the same institution within the law school and the school of engineering, there were no conversions at all.

It follows an amendment to the Fair Work Act in March that mandated that casual staff who meet two criteria be offered full-time or permanent part-time positions.

To be eligible for these positions, staff must have been employed for at least 12 months and had worked a regular pattern of hours for at least the six previous of those months. 

But because so many university staff are on short-term rolling contracts with semester or summer breaks, few have been eligible to make the conversion from casual roles.

A casual academic, who holds positions at both the University of Sydney and the University of Technology told Business Insider Australia it was reflective of the approach of universities generally, including recent ‘burnout’ paid leave. 

The academic, who declined to share his name, said the University of Sydney were vocal about the fact a new leave payment would be open to casuals along with permanent staff. 

“But they allocated the specific days that you…could get the payment during the semester break, when casuals are paid to work anyway,” he said. 

“It’s very cynical on paper,” he added, “because, yes, it’s open to casuals, but they know that no casual is paid during that week.”

Jessica Marian, a casual employee at the university and an NTEU delegate, told Guardian Australia she was encouraged to apply for the casual to permanent conversion but that an initial rejection letter failed to give a reason for the refusal. 

Dr Alison Barnes, national president of the NTEU, told Business Insider Australia that the exposure of the gap between strengthened Fair Work legislation and university practices reflected the Morrison government’s failures to address insecure work in the sector. 

“The nature of casual employment in higher education for academics means almost all contracts run less than 20 weeks. Such contracts will almost always involve breaks over the course of the year, but the work is clearly ongoing. Yet under these laws such breaks exclude you from converting to permanency.

“As a result, universities will continue to keep thousands of staff on casual contracts, forcing them to constantly reapply for their jobs.

Demand for staff picks up post-pandemic

Since the east coast of Australia began reopening in October — and amid reports the current moment marked the potential to rebalance power for higher education workers and unions — several universities signalled they were offering payments to workers that included casual staff.

In early November two Australian universities said they would unlock wages and deliver one-off payments to employees.

​​Jenny Lambert, the director of economics, employment and skills at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said at the time a “worker market” was emerging, where staff were better placed to set terms with their employer.

The University of Wollongong announced it would unlock salary increases for its staff that had been paused under an agreement with staff reached in 2020.

The University of Sydney also signalled boosted payments; in a letter sent to staff it said it was offering employees a one-off bonus of $2,000. 

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus suggested high demand for staff could lead to greater “individual bargaining power” during the window when international students return and universities scale back up. 

“Workers have got this brief period of time with the borders closed where they’ve got more individual bargaining power,” McManus told Guardian Australia.

However in a statement to Business Insider Australia, while McManus reiterated her claim that local workers would potentially be able to use the current market conditions to their advantage, her statements suggested unions had ceded more power to universities since the start of the pandemic. 

“Border closures have kept hundreds of thousands of short-term visa workers out of the workforce, and during this time local workers have increased bargaining power,” McManus said. 

“The Morrison Government has allowed insecure work to spiral out of control and has legislated to make casualising the workforce easier for employers,” she said.

This week, staff at the University of Newcastle conducted a 12-hour digital “sit-in” to protest after having just five of 2,300 casual staff converted to full-time work.