Seasonal employment ruling ‘could slash Australian casualisation’

Delight and alarm in equal measures, as political manoeuvres and drafting technicalities limit both casual employment and its antidote

十一月 30, 2023
Moree, Australia - November 27, 2010: A farmer uses and old vintage tractor on a farm in Moree a major agricultural area in New South Wales, Australia.
Source: iStock

In developments likely to simultaneously please and disappoint Australian university staff and their bosses, legislation currently in train limits administrators’ ability to employ academics casually – but may also limit fixed-term staff’s entitlements to permanent employment.

An 11th-hour amendment to the “Closing Loopholes” bill, which passed the House of Representatives on 29 November, bans the casual employment of staff who work semester to semester.

The amendment, reportedly negotiated the previous evening between the Labor and Greens parties, stipulates that a university semester cannot be deemed a “season” for employment purposes. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said that if the amended bill passed the Senate, universities would no longer be able to treat academics like agricultural workers engaged for harvesting season.

“It will be another disincentive to employing people in casual contracts, particularly where the work is actually ongoing,” said the NTEU’s general secretary, Damien Cahill. “That’s what we’re really targeting – those forms of labour that are ongoing, year in, year out, but where casual workers have been used inappropriately.”

The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) said the change was a “massive concern”. Executive director Craig Laughton said universities would incur significant costs paying lecturers during semester breaks when “there’s no work for them to do”.

“There’s only so much money in the sector,” he said. “You can only slice and dice it in so many ways.”

Mr Laughton was also dumbfounded at a change to “intractable bargaining” provisions which allow Fair Work Commission arbitration of industrial issues that remain unresolved after nine months of bargaining.

The revision, also part of the Greens’ amendment, means any arbitrated condition cannot be “less favourable” than the equivalent term in the preceding enterprise agreement. Mr Laughton said it “fundamentally changed the whole concept of bargaining”, which was about exchanging terms and conditions for increased productivity.

“It effectively…turns arbitration into a process that will be dictated by the unions,” he said. “How do you bargain [if they] don’t…have to trade anything off?”

He said the intractable bargaining provisions had only come into force in June. “There hasn’t been a single intractable bargaining declaration yet. This isn’t factually based. It’s based on fear, uncertainty and doubt.”

Dr Cahill said the change meant employers could no longer use intractable bargaining as a “sword of Damocles” to “try and beat down wages and conditions” in higher education. “We know that employers in our sector have been advised to do just that,” he said.

The Greens’ amendment was one of almost 100 changes accepted by the government to secure lower house approval of the bill. The legislation still faces a vote in the upper house, where Labor requires support from the Greens and at least two other senators.

Meanwhile, the NTEU has told its members that they are unlikely to benefit from separate legislation that limits fixed-term contracts to two years. In an email, the union said it had reached the conclusion that the wording of the “Secure Jobs, Better Pay” Act meant universities and colleges would not be required to grant permanent jobs to long-term contract workers.

The NTEU said it had “reluctantly” agreed to a six-month delay in the fixed-term contract provisions to resolve this “unintended consequence” of the act’s drafting. The AHEIA also supported the delay, warning that the provisions could lead to job losses.



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