TEU Massey University Branch organiser and former co-convenor of Stand Up Heather Warren shares with us some insights from her recent work with the International Trade Union Asia-Pacific Youth Committee, the normalisation of insecure work in society, and the importance of campaigning for secure work in the tertiary education sector.

‘Insecure’, ‘precarious’, ‘impermanent’, ‘casual’ and more recent references to the ‘gig economy’ are just some of the terms used to describe the increasingly normalised labour-market trend which has seen a shift toward increasingly non-standard work arrangements.

In 2013 the NZCTU released an in-depth report into the precarious workforce in New Zealand and found that a third of people in New Zealand are involved in some form of insecure work. In the tertiary education sector, insecurity is best illustrated by the increasing use of fixed-term agreements, but insecure work is feature of work in all sectors, and for many people it defines their working lives.

In my role as co-convenor of Stand Up, I recently had the opportunity to engage with the International Trade Union Confederation Asia Pacific Youth Committee (ITUC-AP). Last year we began the rewrite of the ITUC-AP Charter for 2019-2024, and as part of that process, I facilitated the section on decent work and organising insecure workers titled Increase Young People’s Access to Quality Jobs.

For many young people, their insecurity and precariousness as a worker may follow them through their youth and right through their adult lives. This is why the ITUC-AP Charter for 2019-2024 has a revitalised focus on what actions the union movement needs to take over the next five years to support young people in insecure work, and to encourage young people to engage in the union movement.

Many of the recommendations made by the ITUC-AP were around ensuring the values and issues of younger workers have a strong voice in union decision making - something the TEU has promoted by ensuring U35 representatives to council and the industrial and professional committee. However the Committee also discussed the role and responsibility of unions in advocating and lobbying governments and legislative bodies to ensure that the impact of insecure work is considered in decision-making at all levels.

It became clear during my time working with the ITUC-AP that younger people across the Asia-Pacific region are acutely aware of the impact of insecurity on workers, their families and communities, and that this was only getting worse with the increasing shift toward non-standard work. But I couldn’t help but reflect on how that insecurity is likely to follow younger people well into their adult lives should they choose a career in tertiary education.

With so many TEU members on casual, rolling fixed term or insecure employment agreements, and with many tertiary employers pressuring for more casualised jobs, insecure work is a reality for far too many people working in our polytechnics, universities and wānanga.

With the Reform of Vocational Education and its promise of changes to how vocational education providers are funded, there is an opportunity to provide stability at both the institutional and worker level. Let’s also use this opportunity to think about how we can promote security and permanence across the wider tertiary education sector.

Stability and security is needed at all levels across the sector. Staff need secure employment with reasonable workloads if they are to tackle the future needs of students, employers, and society. We need to find a way to make that happen. After all, our conditions of work, are students’ conditions of learning, and for too long these conditions have been allowed to be defined by insecurity.

Keep an eye out next month for a special Insecure Work edition of Tertiary Update where we will have contributions by TEU members and organisers from across the sector on their experiences of insecurity and the importance of promoting permanence in tertiary education.