By the end of last year, floristry teacher Sarah Scalzo had been a sessional at Box Hill Institute of TAFE for four years, spending every summer without a salary and wondering if she should find another job. “From early December to mid-February every year I would go without a pay cheque – a two-month period without any work,” she says. “I would be on Seek looking for anything else during these periods. It’s very hard to survive [when] only working around nine months of the year.”
She got a taste of more secure employment when temporarily put on a 0.8 contract for six months – “which I really did enjoy” – before reverting back to casual. It served to highlight what she was missing.
“I love my job, but it was really insecure. I was always panicked to find out the size of the next group of students and if the institute would need me,” says Sarah. “We got a home loan during that time and to not have guaranteed employment – with three children, the mortgage and bills – was very stressful for us as a family.”
The union did assist me in sorting this out, particularly my entitlements regarding school holidays and time off-campus.
When the latest TAFE agreement came into effect, with a new clause to convert significant numbers of casual and fixed-term employees to secure employment, Sarah applied for an ongoing position.
“My manager replied to say they would consider my request, and I then got a letter saying that due to my length and time at Box Hill I was eligible. It was a very nice email recognising my commitment to the institute.”
Gaining secure employment was “a massive relief”, Sarah says. She now works 0.6, with one day for planning and two days for delivery. “When it came to the mandatory workplan, there was a bit of confusion related to my working 0.6. The union did assist me in sorting this out, particularly my entitlements regarding school holidays and time off-campus.
“But regarding becoming ongoing, under the terms of the new agreement, it went pretty smoothly,” she says. “My husband was made redundant earlier in the year and it would have been such a stress if I wasn’t ongoing.”
“I’ve spent every summer living on credit. I couldn’t apply for a loan or a mortgage.”
It has also allowed her to play a stronger role in helping to improve the floristry course at Box Hill. “I really wanted to put my hand up to improve the course, whereas before I never felt a full part of it. Now, as an ongoing teacher, I feel a lot more comfortable and relaxed with my colleagues,” says Sarah.
Jacqui Cheng had been at RMIT for eight years – six years as a sessional and one year on a part-time contract that wasn’t renewed due to a restructure – before being offered a six-month contract.
“I was still a part-time sessional for the first half of this year,” she explains. “When I applied under the agreement to have my sessional role made into a contract, I was told I didn’t qualify because I’d had a contract the year before.”
A teacher in RMIT’s School of Vocational Design and Social Context, training ES staff and teaching English to new arrivals, Jacqui contacted the AEU when she was asked to teach almost full time this year without a contract or permanent role.
“Because [AEU organiser] Kate Aitken knew the rules, she could tell me what I needed to do. And she knew someone in HR by name, which gave me a contact who would answer my emails, so that was really helpful. The associate dean, who has been a teacher until recently, also understood my plight,” says Jacqui.
“I’ve spent every summer living on credit. I’m lucky that my husband has a good job, so it doesn’t mean that everyday things are affected, but I couldn’t apply for a loan or a mortgage.”
“If you want teachers to be in industry part time, there should be solid part-time contracts.”
With some pressure from the AEU, and support from the associate dean, Jacqui was finally assured a part-time contract for 2020. This is not just important in terms of job security, she says, but also professional satisfaction and a career path.
“If there’s a position of responsibility offered internally, if you haven’t got a contract you can’t apply,” she says.
“In the subjects I teach, I don’t want to walk in and teach someone else’s work. I want to update and improve the course. You want to be able to have input and work with people. As a sessional, you don’t feel any ownership over the course upgrades.”
Jacqui says she appreciates RMIT’s general commitment to secure employment. “I think institutes that engage in casualisation do themselves a massive disfavour. Then there is no-one to keep things up to date and teachers can’t afford to stay current on that money, which creates long-term issues for TAFE.
“If you want teachers to be in industry part time, there should be solid part-time contracts,” Jacqui adds. “Happy staff are better staff. I work way more hours than I have to, because it matters.”
She says her life at work improved when she made contact with the union. “The AEU is terribly supportive. Someone to talk to. I didn’t want those issues to embitter me. I love my job. I don’t want to change what I do, and I don’t want to whinge to my colleagues. Being able to ring Kate at the union, who listens and understands, has been invaluable.”