Present tense: Federal election

And we’re off! As most members would know by now, the federal election will be held on 21 May. The IEU is not affiliated with any political party, but that does not mean your union is apolitical, and so the result of the coming poll should be of prime importance to IEU members.

Actions taken by the Morrison government and its predecessors over the last decade have had a detrimental effect on the post-secondary education sector, with a ‘benign neglect’ approach leaving the industry ill-equipped to handle the unique challenges brought on by the pandemic.

In 2020, the Morrison government moved swiftly to close Australia’s international borders, and while that may have provided a useful protection against the spread of COVID-19, they were kept closed for too long, which meant that colleges reliant on international students have been left to wither, and to rely on online offerings to survive. Many did not.

The Labor Party is making much of its proposed reinvigoration of the TAFE sector, and while this is not IEU territory, a stronger TAFE can only help improve standards generally across the post-secondary sector.

Most importantly, Labor has committed to reforming Australia’s outdated Fair Work industrial system, in particular focusing on wages, workloads and insecure work, while also strengthening the bargaining provisions of the Fair Work Act.

The Morrison government, by contrast, has run out of steam after nearly a decade in office, and does not appear to have much of an agenda for anything should it win a fourth term. It’s clearly time for change.

High Court developments

In February, the High Court brought down judgements in two cases, with significant implications for labour law in Australia. The two cases, ZG Operations & Anor v Jamsek & Ors, and CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting, were about the definitions of employment vis a vis contracting. In essence, the cases were seeking to define, under law, when a person is more properly considered an employee (and therefore entitled to the protections of the Fair Work Act) or an independent contractor (who is not).

These considerations are important for the post-secondary education sector, as it is common for less reputable colleges to require an ABN from prospective workers before offering work. Such colleges are, in effect, making engagement as an independent contractor a condition of work, which allows those colleges to avoid normal employment obligations like award wages and superannuation.

The thrust of the High Court decisions in the two above cases was that the status of the employment relationship is largely determined by what is in the contract between the parties. In short, the Court is saying that the employment contract is whatever it says it is, regardless of previously understood notions of ‘work tests’ to determine the proper characterisation of employment.

Members should therefore be hyper-vigilant about exactly what is in employment contracts at the time they are signed. If a worker signs on as a contractor, even in ignorance of any alternative, then it may be very difficult to get this changed after the fact.

Kendall Warren