Casual academics underpaid, undervalued

Casual academics say Fair Work laws have failed them and kept university staff in insecure work.
Casual academics say Fair Work laws have failed them and kept university staff in insecure work.

Only two per cent of casual academics at 19 universities across Australia have been deemed eligible for permanent employment, a Senate inquiry has been told.

The inquiry into job security heard on Tuesday casual academic staff at a NSW university feel demoralised, stressed and undervalued as a result of their insecure employment.

But University of Newcastle management representatives say their hands are tied by obligations under Fair Work laws.

NSW Tertiary Education Union secretary Damien Cahill said university management deliberately employ casual workers to minimise costs and shift risks.

He said casual academic staff were paid at the lowest level of the scale and only during the semester itself despite often working overtime.

"Universities rely systematically and knowingly on casual staff performing unpaid duties," he said.

The committee heard casual academics often teach, research and perform community engagement tasks, but are not compensated for their work.

University casual academic Chloe Killen said the hours set out in her contract often did not match the hours she would need to commit to the tasks.

"It's demeaning having to beg to be paid the same that an ongoing employee would get (for the same work)," she said.

In September, the university reviewed the contracts of 2300 casual staff who could be eligible for conversion to ongoing employment.

Just six staff members received an ongoing employment offer.

University management told the committee they were bound by Fair Work legislation under which few casual staff met the criteria for conversion.

But they acknowledged the criteria did not reflect the dedication and value of casual staff.

University People and Culture officer Martin Sainsbury said one of the challenges was the periodic nature of academic work.

He said the university was looking at a new model called "periodic employment" which would provide more entitlements than casual academic staff currently have access to.

But Dr Cahill rejected the proposal, saying it was another form of exploitative insecure employment, halfway between casual and fixed-term.

The inquiry continues in Canberra on Wednesday and is due to report back to parliament by February 2022.

Australian Associated Press