CSIRO staff seek Fair Work relief

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The implementation of the government’s staffing cap at Australia’s national science agency will be tested as part of a Fair Work Commission challenge lodged by the CSIRO staff association.

The CSIRO union has been campaigning this year for agency to be exempted from the cap, saying it has put a “handbrake” on important work. It is now claiming that the cap is in breach of CSIRO’s enterprise agreement.

The CSIRO union has lodged a formal dispute with the Fair Work Commission claiming a breach of the CSIRO Enterprise Agreement. It is alleging the implementation of the government Average Staffing Level cap at CSIRO has led to a breach of a clause that says that indefinite employment will be the standard form of employment at the agency.

CSIRO staff association secretary Sam Popovski said the amount of staff on ongoing arrangements at CSIRO had fallen from 80 per cent to 74 per cent in the last five years, and this would likely worsen with the staffing cap now in effect.

“With the implementation of the cap this financial year, we’re alleging that … it will decline further and that includes how staff are being engaged by CSIRO,” Mr Popovski told InnovationAus.com.

“We’re essentially alleging that the staffing cap policy, which is derived from government, is inconsistent with provisions of the EA. It doesn’t actually support the attraction and retention of staff as the EA provides for.”

The Average Staffing Level cap was introduced by the Coalition in 2015-16 with an aim to keep the public sector the same size as it was in 2007.

According to the staff association, the cap is now being “strictly applied” at CSIRO from this financial year, with a hard cap of 5,193 staff.

The union has said that this has led to no new positions being created, many term and casual positions not being renewed and an increased reliance on outsourcing.

The Opposition has said this cap is “undermining [CSIRO’s] role in advancing science and innovation”, but the government has said these are unverified claims.

CSIRO management has denied there is a hiring freeze at the agency and has said there are no upcoming redundancies due to the staffing cap, arguing it is more of a “perceived impediment” rather than a real obstacle.

CSIRO and the staff association now have four weeks for conciliation to try to reach “practical solutions” before the case is brought before the Fair Work Commission.

CSIRO attended a private conference before the Fair Work Commission on Monday in response to the dispute.

“CSIRO continues to manage its resourcing within the Average Staffing Level estimate, which we do through a range of resourcing options,” a CSIRO spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.

Mr Popovski said the aim of the action was to gain more transparency over CSIRO’s hiring processes.

“Most of the staff feel like they’ve been kept largely in the dark since July this year as to how decisions have been made about what types of work and jobs are important as ongoing and which are not. There’s been very little transparency on that so far,” he said.

The union has said that the cap is “severely undermining” its science and innovation efforts.

The cap has resulted in some employees being “coerced” into resigning from ongoing employment and then being brought back through a labour hire company with significantly lower salary conditions, Mr Popovski said, and a “freeze” on hiring post-doctoral researchers in the land and water field.

“That’s essentially stopping a whole entire important early-career research part in critical areas of work,” he said.

The staff association also claims that CSIRO was issuing new contracts because it is unable to bring in new employees, and is also refusing new work on this basis.

“There are a lot of workarounds going on in the organisation which are time-consuming and bound up in red tape. And the outcome of that is not even as good as the outcome would have been previously,” Mr Popovski said.

The cap is having a significant impact on the CSIRO’s operations and work output, he said.

“It’s putting a handbrake on CSIRO. The combination of these examples for us means the performance of the organisation as a whole will suffer and the organisation will find it more difficult to deliver on its own strategy to the government,” he said.

“The staffing cap issue is all encompassing and is limiting flexibility and innovation and sending the wrong signal to both industry that it wants to collaborate with the organisation and to staff that want to work with it.

“It becomes an overly bureaucratic organisation bound by government policies like this rather than an organisation that sits in the innovation economy and is responsive to the needs of industry.”

The staff association is pushing for finance minister Mathias Cormann to apply an exemption for CSIRO.

The issue has also sparked a political fight, with Labor and the Greens pushing for an exemption from the cap, but the government and CSIRO executives denying it has had a real impact on the organisation.

“In practice, it’s nowhere near the impediment that it might seem, but it absolutely is a perceived impediment, and that’s why we’re putting out things like this to try and get the facts on the table, so people don’t worry about it so much and focus on continuing to deliver benefit for Australia,” CSIRO chief Larry Marshall told a recent Senate Estimates hearing.

CSIRO chief operating officer Judi Zielke has also said that recruitment at CSIRO is being approached on a case-by-case basis, and there are usually about 100 positions being advertised at any one time.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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