Present tense - COVID-19 cannot rob you of your rights

Some colleges are taking desperate measures in response to the pandemic, but members need to remember that their existing entitlements remain.

The coronavirus crisis continues, and while the number of new cases in Australia appears to be decreasing, the fallout for the economy is just beginning. One of the worst affected industries looks likely to be the post-secondary college sector.

ELICOS colleges will be particularly hard hit. English colleges rely on a steady stream of international students to stay viable, and now that the borders have been temporarily closed to non-citizens, there probably won’t be any new students for quite a while.

This problem is exacerbated by the omission of any support from government for international students and, as lockdowns mean jobs in areas such as hospitality are drying up, students already in Australia often have no choice but to go home.

There is some better news for teachers and other staff, with the federal government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy hopefully allowing colleges to remain viable through the initial phase of the crisis. The union has sent information out to all members about how this works, and you should ask your employer what their plans are with it.

Teachers who have been terminated or stood down may be eligible for the increased unemployment benefit (badged as JobSeeker), worth $550 per week.

There have also been some changes to the Fair Work Act and to the award, allowing for variations in hours, for annual leave to be taken at half pay, and for two weeks of additional unpaid leave for those in self isolation. If your employer approaches you to reduce your hours, you should try to get an undertaking (in writing) from them that you will revert to your previous arrangements in due course. The changes to the Act will expire in six months, so don’t sign away your rights forever.

Some colleges are taking desperate measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but members need to remember that their existing entitlements remain. Some colleges have attempted to cut wages and other entitlements below the prevailing award rates, but this is not allowable under the law, and members can pursue any underpayments that might ensue.

Members at International House, for example, were advised in early April that the college would unilaterally cut wages by 15 per cent, even for work already completed. Members at the college organised immediately and, with the union’s backing, got the college to back down immediately. Pleasingly, the college is now attempting a more co-operative approach to cost cutting.

There has never been a more vital time to be part of your union, and you should be encouraging your colleagues to join the IEU:

There are many benefits to IEU membership:

Union fees are tax deductible.

Until 22 May, the IEU is offering a six month fee exemption for casual, sessional and support staff members who are currently financial. Details have been emailed to all eligible members.

There has never been a better – or more important – time to join the IEU.

Kendall Warren