Federal Court action challenges inappropriate use of fixed-term contracts

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has launched Federal Court action against Queensland University of Technology (QUT) over the inappropriate use of fixed-term contracts to employ staff.

Acting on behalf of the Union, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers will file an application today (Thursday) seeking more than $280,000 relief on behalf of three QUT staff who should have received a redundancy payment when their work was ‘no longer required’ at the end of 2022.

This case was filed in the same week that new rules that limit the use of fixed-term contracts came into effect on 6 December, as part of the Secure Jobs, Better Pay changes to the Fair Work Act.

“Some of these members had worked at QUT for nearly ten years on dodgy fixed-term contracts, which we have proof of. Worse, when they sought to have their roles converted to continuing positions, not only were they refused, they were told their academic roles didn’t exist anymore,” says National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Queensland Secretary Michael McNally.

- Advertisement -

A problem across entire tertiary sector

Mr McNally says it’s “not just QUT”.

“The abuse of fixed-term appointments is rife, right across the sector,” he says. “Academic student support is clearly an ongoing role so why do these staff have to wonder each Christmas whether they will have a job next year. It’s immoral. This case shows how the use of fixed-term contracts undermines job security. You are never safe at the end of one contract if a university decides it wants to change your job title.”

A hoped-for successful decision will, he says, “force universities across the board to do an audit of dodgy fixed-term contracts, just like our successful wage theft campaigns have forced managements to audit their payments to casual staff”.

“An unintended consequence of the wording in this new change to the law is that it will probably not limit the use of fixed-term employment in higher education, as we saw it failed to do for casual academic staff. The NTEU plans to campaign for change to ensure university fixed-term employees receive the same benefits as workers in other sectors.”

- Advertisement -

“Loyal hard-working staff” deserve what’s “just”

Principal Lawyer at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers Giri Sivaraman is head of the firm’s Queensland employment law departments and says “these were loyal, hard-working staff who had worked for the university for many years”.

The university, he told EducationDaily, “deliberately offered fixed term contracts in circumstances where it should have been clear to them that it wasn’t allowed”.

He hopes the outcome will see the three specific workers get just compensation.

“More broadly, we hope the University takes pause and thinks twice before offering fixed term contracts in similar circumstances,” Mr Sivaraman says.

In the case of the three workers at the heart of this action, he says “the university clearly valued their contributions to have constantly re-employed them on fixed-term contracts”.

- Advertisement -

“But unfortunately what the university failed to do is give these workers the dignity of being employed permanently,” Mr Sivaraman told EducationDaily. “The university breached the Fair Work Act by repeatedly offering these fixed-term contracts in contravention of the EBA. This case is about holding employers to account and making sure that workers get what is rightfully theirs.”

Share This Article
Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live