A casual academic, who received an award for teaching excellence from the University of Sydney, has been so poor she lived on the balcony of an elderly man, looking after his toileting and other needs, in exchange for accommodation.
Sharni Chan, an expert in politics and public policy, told a media conference prior to last week’s public hearings (at the Victorian Parliament) into the Fair Work Amendment (Tackling Job Insecurity) Bill 2012 that, after ten years as a casual academic, she would happily leave the university sector if she had the opportunity to retrain.
“I am now in the final year of my PhD and feel really trapped. I have neither a career to speak of, nor a family. I’ve spent a decade training and building up teaching experience and a research profile. I’ve done all the right things and at the same time there is high demand for my work, however it is always on casual contracts. I’m very committed to my work and I think the work I do is important – it is just completely unsustainable,” she said
“Casual teaching work is poorly organised and it’s not uncommon to be offered a 13 week contract less than one week before teaching begins, to have my hours increased or reduced once the contract has begun and to receive no pay until late into the semester.”
Grahame McCulloch, General Secretary of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), said the union representatives were speaking to the parliamentary hearing because the Fair Work Amendment will result in a fairer future for many, many Australian workers, including staff at universities and research institutes.
“Insecure or casual employment is the dirty little secret underlying the massive expansion of universities over the past decade. Many Australians will be shocked to learn that only just over a third of employees in Australian universities and research institutes enjoy the ordinary entitlements of continuing employment,” he said.
“On conservative estimates, of the 200,000 employees of public universities, around 68,000 have continuing employment, around 45,000 are on fixed term contracts, and roughly 86,000 are ‘regular casuals’. Around half of undergraduate teaching is undertaken by casuals.
“The situation in research institutes and language teaching centres is generally even worse, with many staff having years or even decades of rolling contracts or casual employment. Many just scrape by and can’t get mortgages. Their lives are marred by insecurity and anxiety. The majority of casuals are women.”
The amendment to the Fair Work Act will enable employees or unions to apply to Fair Work Australia for ‘secure employment orders’ for casuals to convert to ongoing employment.
Grahame McCulloch said the ‘casualisation’ of universities was directly related to the systemic underfunding of higher education over the past two decades.
Sharni Chan, who is gave evidence at last week’s public hearing, said that once she began her PhD, she found the boom then bust rhythms of casual teaching to be completely incompatible with study commitments.
“Casual teaching contracts are based on piece rates which factor in a huge amount of unpaid work, e.g. the time it takes to listen to the lectures, do the readings set for students and then prepare lesson plans is completely inadequate. Over the time I was teaching, class sizes also got bigger and bigger, face-to-face teaching times shrunk and the needs of students got progressively more complex and diverse and this meant many, many hours each week responding to student emails and calls – all in unpaid time and on my own computer and phone,” she said.
“After 10 years as a casual, I have had no sick leave or holiday pay. I have no access to long service leave (it is not portable between institutions) and little superannuation. I have no access to redundancy pay so I have no opportunity to support myself to retrain. I feel permanently exhausted and over the past three years I have developed chronic health problems which require medication. I have now run out of savings and feel like I’ve begged and borrowed all that I can from family and friends.”
Thank you to NTEU for the story. If you have a similar story about casualisation and insecure work here in New Zealand contact TEU’s communications officer Stephen Day.