University Casuals Slipping Through The Cracks

3 June 2020

Casual staff at the University of Melbourne are facing significant financial insecurity amidst of COVID-19 pandemic, as measures implemented by university management and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) to save jobs places them in a greater state of precarity. 

Early in May, the NTEU proceeded with the release of the National Jobs Protection Framework which proposed the implementation of “pay freeze[s], deferral of pay rises…temporary general reductions in Agreement rates” to prevent job losses in the tertiary education sector. 

The framework afforded universities the option of temporary variations in Enterprise Agreements, including year-long cuts in pay and conditions in exchange for protection of jobs. 

The University of Melbourne has chosen to opt out of the framework, with Vice-Chancellor (VC) Duncan Maskell describing it as a “complex, bureaucratic mechanism” in an email sent to staff on 15 May 2020

While the email mentioned a 20 per cent staff pay cuts for senior staff and deferral of bonus payments due to downfall in revenue, it did not elaborate/communicate any measures that will be undertaken to protect casual workers. 

Geraldine Fela, University of Melbourne NTEU Branch Committee member and casual staff member, has indicated her personal opposition to the framework.

“Solidarity is when we stand together to bring everyone up. It’s not taking a pay cut.”

University of Sydney Professor Nick Reimer agrees with this sentiment.

“Not only is the NTEU leadership signalling that pay losses are OK; it’s also giving management a green light to throw casualised staff under the bus.”

The ongoing negotiations spurred the recent day of national action in Melbourne by University of Melbourne and RMIT branches of the NTEU on May 21 that saw both online and in-person protests in the Melbourne CBD. These followed social distancing measures of the time.

Fela said that this day of action was important in developing mobilisation and placing pressure on the university and the government. 

The difficulties with job losses and pay cuts that face casual staff members also extend into the personal lives of each worker in a variety of ways.

“My living situation is pretty tight. I’m still in the process of discussing a rent reduction with my landlord… At this point, it is impossible for me to go back to my home country as there is just one flight and is extremely expensive,” said Aasha Sriram, an international student who relied on her work as a Students@Work telethon caller to support her Master studies. 

In addition to her job situation, Aasha has to pay a higher tuition fee as an international student. 

“With no access to resources paid from our tuition such as labs and libraries, students feel it a high price to pay and we will also have to pay off this debt for years after we graduate.”

University of Melbourne Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) tutor, Lucy Turton also told Farrago that the University had not done anything substantial to support her as she struggles to tutor without a functional laptop.

“I applied for one of the grants to get a laptop but still haven’t heard anything, despite putting my application in about a month ago now.” 

Though she has praised her boss for moral support, she continues to be outraged at both the NTEU and University. 

 “It’s appalling that the NTEU leadership would think it’s okay to throw out a hard-won EBA because of some shady backroom deal they’ve been negotiating with the Uni Executive.”

According to Sriram, “introducing a WFH alternative or continuing to pay staff at least a minimum amount (especially staff who do not qualify for…any of the government benefits) would have helped keep them afloat financially. Reduced hours would still be better than no hours.” 

UMSU Education Public Office Bearers Charlie Joyce and Noni Bridger expressed their commitment to campaigns such as the National Day of Action to oppose cuts in pay and conditions, as well as casual workers affected by these policies. 

 “UMSU has signed onto an open letter calling on the University to provide more support to higher degree research students (in the same vein as the above question). Our Advocacy and Legal service is open and free to all students on campus and student tutors should feel free to access their services.” 

“Joining the NTEU on campus is another way to fight against job cuts. Students, staff and student tutors should campaign to address the fundamental causes that are creating issues through their employment and education.” 

UMSU President Hannah Buchan also praised the UniMelb NTEU Branch members for their relentless effort to reject the National Framework, as well as their opposition with the University’s management’s lack of collaboration with NTEU to protect workers.  

“They have been great leaders during this unprecedented time. The University of Melbourne branch has been particularly active in fighting against cuts and have been organising to oppose cuts to pay on campus….However, we are still concerned that this crisis will lead to many job losses. All student-tutors should join the NTEU so that they can mobilise and work collectively.” 

“Our [tutors’] working conditions are student learning conditions. The university will always try and differentiate between student and staff issues, but it’s all the same struggle. When we work together, we are stronger.”

Fela also believes in the importance of bringing students into discussions around the issues facing casual staff. 

“Students and staff members we need to start compiling a bit of a list of where things are being cut, so we can actually start campaigning around them.”

A University spokesperson maintains that senior leaders are working with staff to reduce costs.

“The University of Melbourne continues to focus on minimising job losses and maintaining high quality teaching and research in the face of massive financial disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic represents the biggest financial crisis the University has faced. The measures the University has implemented aren’t about profitability. They’re about the University’s survival.”

Changes within the University and the NTEU to casual staffing arrangements continue to develop with variations to the National Framework and Enterprise Agreement

The University of Melbourne Casual Network and UMSU Education have also organised a Zoom rally. for Tuesday June 9; however, the fate of casual workers remains uncertain at this time.

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