Why unis need to act on casual staff conditions

Managements may not want to but it will look bad if they don’t

There are two problems with existing arrangements.

One is the way managements at institutions across the country have variously been caught and/or confessed to cases of underpaying casuals for years.

Another could be way worse for managements.

Universities can correctly argue that flexible and part-time employment suits many casual staff. But for those that it does not changes to the Fair Work Act established a pathway for casuals to convert to continuing employment. They must have worked a regular pattern of hours for at least the last six months and be able to work as a permanent staff member without “significant changes to the current employment arrangement.”

Universities responded as required by checking how many people qualified – but their interpretation of the service test is such that in large institutions just dozens of casual staff, out of thousands – many doing the same work for years – qualified.

Even if universities are correctly reading the act, it can easily appear as if  they are keen to keep staff costs down by denying casuals access to the conditions that come with a regular job, sick leave and a sense of security, for example.

And there are arguments that the work test unis apply is not what the law intends which is the same work regularly done over time, but not necessarily on every working day.

Sticking to their take on the letter of the law could become harder for universities, because a test case could be coming.

Flinders U casual academic Toby Priest, supported by the National Tertiary Education Union, will be in arbitration with the university this month, before the Fair Work Commission.

Mr Priest has taught physical education at Flinders for 15 years, in a “predictable and on-going fashion” for two semesters across the last eleven.  However he did not meet the university’s requirement for conversion.

This could be a lose-lose for managements.

If Mr Priest comes out of arbitration with a continuing job, other workers will follow his lead and not just at Flinders U.

And if arbitration fails and the case continues in the FWC, it will generate a whole lot of attention for the circumstances of thousands of casuals across the country who are in similar situations to Mr Priest.

Whatever occurs will not be great for university managements. If the interpretations of the work test they have used ultimately fails they will have to pay (not much) more for the low cost labour many rely on, but they will lose flexibility in staff budgeting.

But if university management interpretations of the hours test is were upheld it will look as if they are using the letter of the law to deny casuals the chance of regular jobs.