‘We’re not statistics, we’re people’: UOW staff fight for job security

UOW branch president of the NTEU Georgine Clarsen with members at the University of Wollongong on Thursday. The union is fighting what it says is the university's agenda to strip staff of conditions. Picture: Adam McLean
UOW branch president of the NTEU Georgine Clarsen with members at the University of Wollongong on Thursday. The union is fighting what it says is the university's agenda to strip staff of conditions. Picture: Adam McLean

Anna Schaefer has just been voted academic of the year by students studying at the University of Wollongong’s School of Medicine.

It was recognition of how much Dr Schaefer, a casual UOW employee, was valued among those she teaches.

Now, amid a National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) campaign fighting for job security, she wants the university to also acknowledge the value of casual staff.

Dr Schaefer, herself a member of the NTEU, is one of the many faces of UOW’s casualised workforce.

Almost 65 per cent of UOW staff were employed casually in 2016-17, the highest of any university in the country, according to a NTEU analysis of employee data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

The average for all universities was 43.8 per cent. Even UOW’s own data showed 76 per cent of staff, factoring in casual and fixed-term positions, were employed on insecure arrangements, the union said.

For Dr Schaefer, her current role as a casual tutor has been her only paid work for the past seven years.

“You don’t know from one semester to another, you don’t know over Christmas time, if you're going to have work,” she said.

“I’ve got work until the end of this semester, but I don’t know what’s going to happen after this semester.”

It’s in this context that Dr Schaefer’s academic of the year accolade is a double-edged sword. 

“They [UOW management] say they can see value, but they’re still not giving me certainty,” she said. “They're aware of the value I bring because of what the students say to them.” 

The NTEU has been negotiating with management for improved workplace conditions since February.

On Thursday, UOW’s NTEU members voted unanimously to ramp up its campaign and prepare for a protected industrial action ballot.

NTEU UOW branch president, Associate Professor Georgine Clarsen, said the union was concerned about a reliance on casual labour.

“The University of Wollongong, the statistics are telling us, is the worst university in the whole of Australia for the amount of people who are employed on casual or short-term contracts,” she said.

Prof Clarsen has worked at UOW for 15 years and seen the effect of insecure work among her colleagues.

“Every session they’ve got to line up and see if they get a job and then at the end of every session they’re laid off,” she said.

“It’s heartbreaking. They do it because they’re dedicated and they love teaching, they love students, but it’s not enough for them to build a secure life on.

“They can’t get even home loans, they can’t get rental agreements because they don’t have contracts at work. We’re not just statistics, we’re people in the community.”

Job talks ongoing ‘in good faith’: uni

The University of Wollongong says it “recognises and values all staff” and has engaged in “good faith bargaining” as workplace agreement negotiations continue.

The university has also hit out at the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), using a statement to say it “prefers to engage directly with staff and their representatives in constructive discussions at the bargaining table rather than conducting workplace negotiations via the media”.

The comments came as UOW’s NTEU members voted to ramp up its campaign on Thursday. 

In its statement, UOW said it used a range of employment arrangements to “meet the emerging needs of its students, research commitments and administration”.

“Many casual staff members are engaged in response to changing student demand ... and are often gainfully employed in their profession outside of the university,” it said.

“As at December 2017, UOW had 2176 full-time equivalent permanent and fixed-term contract staff and a casual workforce of 447 full-time equivalent staff, which is around about 20 per cent of our workforce.”

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