Present tense: Election time

The phoney war is over, and the long awaited federal election is upon us. This election creates a clear choice across a range of issues, many of which will have a significant effect on the life of members working in the private post secondary college sector.

Perhaps the most significant issue is industrial relations. Regular readers will know that your Union is a big supporter of the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign. The industrial system created under the Fair Work Act needs changing, with employers exploiting its loopholes with increasing regularity.

The Liberal/National Party Coalition has been reluctant to do more than just tinker with the Fair Work system, though one suspects that they may well go down the WorkChoices route were they to be emboldened with an unexpected election win in May.

Labor, on the other hand, has made a number of promises for reform in this area. The ALP has pledged to restore penalty rates, to ensure that labour hire companies pay the same as standard employees, to allow industry bargaining, and to alter the parameters for minimum wage setting.

Highly significant

For the private college sector, these last two may well be highly significant. Currently, bargaining can only be conducted on a workplace-by-workplace basis, which has the effect that unionised workplaces with market power do well, while most colleges miss out, and have to rely on the basic modern award. If unions were allowed to bargain across the industry, it would allow for improvements in wages and conditions across the whole sector, lifting all 'boats' in the process. The ALP’s policy will limit industry bargaining to ‘low paid’ sectors, which might or might not include the private college sector.

Changes to minimum wage settings could also lead to some improvements in the industry. Most colleges are regulated by the modern award, the Educational Services (Post-Secondary Education) Award 2010, the pay rates of which are adjusted by the same percentage as the national minimum wage. Labor has suggested that their proposals around the minimum wage will not flow through to all award rates, though it’s difficult to see how that might be avoided, given the nexus between award rates and the minimum wage.

Education policy

Another area where there will be a clear choice between the major parties will be in the policy towards the post secondary sector. Liberal policy generally has been to let the market do its thing, and this is especially true in private colleges. They have come belatedly to more regulation for the sector in the light of numerous scandals involving so-called rogue operators, though most of this has been quite reactive. Labor has pledged to hold a far reaching review in to the VET and private education sector within 100 days of being elected, which would suggest that this would happen by the end of the coming winter.

There is probably little doubt that the ALP has an institutional bias towards public providers like TAFE, and this review may well be cover to allow the government to better fund TAFE, and to move away from the private provider model. Nevertheless, there will definitely be opportunities to improve standards for both students and employees across the private sector as well.

The IEU is not affiliated with any political party, but that does not mean your Union is not political, and we will support any party that will commit to furthering the broader aims of your Union. Given the dysfunction and chaos on the conservative side of politics in recent years, and the lack of coherent policies in a range of areas, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a change of government is desirable. When you consider that the opposition is united behind a suite of fully costed and thought-out policies in a range of areas, the choice should seem obvious.

Agreements update

Despite the colour and movement of the federal election campaign, your Union continues to work away on getting improvements for members, in particular through the enterprise bargaining process.

In March, your Union came to an in-principle agreement with Insearch, the language school attached to UTS. The proposed agreement will provide for salary increases of 2.5% per annum over three years, a clearer criteria for the use of sessional contracts, and yearly paid union meetings. Voting was due to take place in April.

In late March, Navitas English NSW staff approved an agreement providing for salary increase equivalent to the Wages Price Index (WPI; 2.1% for 2018, and probably slightly higher in 2019), improvements in the classification structure for admin staff (which should make it easier to progress to the top of the scale), and an extra increase for Level 5 admin employees. The agreement was passed overwhelmingly by staff and has been lodged with the Fair Work Commission.

Negotiations at UoW College have not been as fruitful, with management unwilling to move from their long-standing offer of a 1.9% yearly increase, and few changes in other areas. Negotiations are ongoing and the IEU and sister union, the NTEU are considering options to resolve the dispute.

Negotiations are also underway at UNSW Global, Sydney College of English, Embassy English, and Taylor’s College, and will soon commence at Navitas English Services, and Navitas English ACT.

The Fair Work Act includes provisions allowing for ‘good faith bargaining’, under which an employer can be compelled to start bargaining when it can be demonstrated that a majority of employees (or group of employees, such as teachers) want that to happen. To find out how that might work at your college, contact your Union.

Casual conversion

In early April, the Fair Work Commission made a preliminary decision to include the standard casual conversion clause in the post secondary modern award, in line with similar decisions in other modern awards. It’s not a done deal yet – the commission has ordered a 21-day period to give employers time to appeal – but all going well it will be part of the award from the start of May.

The conversion clause will allow long standing casual employees the right to apply to convert their employment from casual to ongoing, giving them job security, and access to paid leave (though on the downside, successful employees would lose their casual loading, and so might find their take-home pay reduces slightly). The private college sector is rife with insecure work practices, so this change, should it be confirmed, will be a welcome addition.

Kendall Warren