Industrial umpire says no to new deal on regulating wages and hours for uni staff

Industry awards are reviewed every four years, giving unions and lobby groups a chance to argue for changes to working conditions. Yesterday a full bench of the Fair Work Commission decided on a long list of changes to the higher education award, variously supported or opposed by unions and employment groups. Given most enterprise agreements include better conditions for workers than are in the award this might seem academic. It isn’t – as demonstrated by Murdoch U’s move last year, to replace its expired agreement with award conditions.

Among a mass of proposed and opposed changes on working conditions decided for university staff by the commission one stands out, how long and for how much should academic and professional staff work.

Academic working hours: According to the National Tertiary Education Union, management interference means the days when academics were self-organising and worked the hours they knew they needed to get their job done are gone. It is now “possible and practical to make a fair assessment of how much time it would take a competent academic to complete a given total academic workload to a professional standard,” adding that university academic supervisors already did so. The union also argued that “the academic staff award’s properly fixed minimum rates are undermined in circumstances where there is no provision in the award which addresses the issue of long hours of work being required by the employer without compensation.” However, management groups variously argued that this would lead to overtime in the award, “which was inconsistent with the nature of how academic work was organised and determined, with much of that work self-determined rather than directed or required by the employer.”

The commissioners knocked the union back, concluding that its proposal would require, “more robust and/or rigorous mechanisms for recording the time spent on particular activities by academics” and that “it is not possible in our view to delineate between required and self-directed academic work.” Overall the FWC decided that deciding what to pay academics for their work is what enterprise bargaining was created to do.

General staff overtime: The union also called on the commission to insert overtime in the award for general staff. However the NTEU lost this one as well, with FWC concluding; “while the evidence pointed to some general staff working additional hours, the evidence does not establish that those hours were worked across the board by general staff or were not capable of being compensated or dealt with in accordance with the processes established under the applicable industrial instrument.”


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