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Speech: Insecurity in publicly funded jobs

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 19 Oct 2021

I rise to speak on the Select Committee on Job Security's second interim report, on insecurity in publicly funded jobs. The Greens welcome the tabling of this interim report, and generally we concur with the recommendations as well. During this inquiry, we have engaged with witnesses from a huge range of industries, organisations and parts of our community. I too thank the members of the committee, but especially the committee secretariat, without whose excellent work we would never be able to produce such insightful reports.

I want to take the opportunity this evening, though, to focus on higher education and reflect a little more on what this report has revealed about the insecure work crisis in our universities. The report provides a very damning summation and analysis of this crisis. It doesn't mince words. But I also want to reflect a little bit on the depth and seriousness of the situation.

A couple of weeks ago, the Commonwealth Fair Work Ombudsman had some very strong words for Australia's universities, pointing to instances of large-scale systemic underpayment of employee wages, particularly the wages of casual academics and professional staff. Ombudsman Sandra Parker pointed particularly to piece-rate-style performance benchmarks that may well be in breach of enterprise agreements. The Fair Work Ombudsman is now investigating 14 universities over potential underpayment and wage theft matters. This has expanded significantly over the past year or so. I began referring universities to the Senate Economics References Committee's inquiry into underpayments around the middle of last year. At this time last year only five universities were being or had been investigated by the ombudsman. That list had expanded to 8 by April of this year. Now there are 14. This list tells us that this situation is out of control. What's worse is that most universities are continuing to wipe their hands of it and to dismiss the systemic and serious nature of the underpayments.

Casual workers, and particularly women, who are overrepresented as casuals, are bearing the brunt of this wage theft. That has been allowed to flourish almost completely unchecked until now. Casualisation and wage theft are inextricably linked. The impacts of casual, insecure work are devastating. In evidence given to the committee, the University of Sydney Casuals Network provided testimony from casual academics on sector job prospects after the pandemic is over. One said, 'I'm thinking more and more that academia won't be a viable career option.' Another said, 'There is incredible uncertainty about my future employment, which leaves me worried and not particularly productive.' Another points to how this state of affairs will contribute to the loss of a generation of early career researchers and PhD students who have worked tirelessly for institutions that have failed to recognise their contribution. Workers can't plan their futures. They are questioning why they bother. They are in many ways completely lost. How can this go on in one of the wealthiest countries in the world? It was the committee's view in this report, which I wholeheartedly echo, that an increase in casualisation in our universities over the last few decades is not a result of the seasonal nature of university semesters. It is a feature of cost-cutting and the corporatisation of the sector. Insecure workers are cheaper and easier to get rid of, and over time, exploitative work force practices such as piece rates have become the contractual norm.

So what can be done? To begin with, our universities are in desperate need of a massive investment of public funding. There has been funding cut after funding cut over decades by successive governments. The Liberals job-ready graduates reforms, combined with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to utter crisis and even more devastation. A recent Centre for Future Work report, which identified as many as 40,000 jobs lost over 12 months, was about the grimmest reading you could imagine on the state of affairs for the future of higher education in this country. We need a serious injection of new money directly into teaching, learning and research. Linked to this, though not within the remit of this report, is an overhaul of university governance. The corporate university has, and it pains me to say this, been built by neoliberal corporate university management. Only by radically shaking up who runs our universities will we be able to structurally shift the balance of power away from the managerial class back to staff and students over the long term. This is a big task for university communities, but one that is absolutely essential.

This report also contains some other useful recommendations. There should be much clearer reporting requirements with respect to employment statistics and headcounts of permanent, fixed term and casual staff. It recommends that the government require universities to set publicly available targets for increasing permanent employment and link this to funding. It recommends improved rights of entry for trade unions. All of these are very useful initiatives and some the Greens have proposed strengthening in our additional comments.

I want to reflect very briefly on the public sector component of this report as well. This report does paint an alarming picture of ongoing casualisation and outsourcing within the Australian Public Service. It identifies that evidence provided to the committee indicated that the number of non-ongoing employers is currently the highest it has been over the last two decades and that consultants and contractors are receiving more and more Public Service work. Let's be clear: this is not a problem confined to the federal Public Service. It is a disease purposefully spread by modern neoliberal government. It impacts practically all Australian jurisdictions. In my state of New South Wales, the past 10 years of the state coalition government has seen an enormous increase in outsourcing of consultant work. The consequences of this, again, are terrible. There is the clear and obvious consequence of the workers whose once secure public sector jobs are now being slowly but surely replaced by casual and non-ongoing staff and external contractors, but there are systemic problems for the public service more generally. The quality of work diminishes as institutional knowledge and expertise evaporates and the government can no longer stand on its own two feet.

The report makes some useful and commendable recommendations aimed at addressing the state of affairs. I'm looking forward to future hearings of this inquiry. It has been a pretty long inquiry, with dozens and dozens of witnesses, but we need that to address this massive issue of increasing insecure work. I hope that a final report can make recommendations that make sure that insecure work becomes part of history, as workers in all sectors are paid fairly and treated fairly. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.


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