CSIRO heads to Fair Work Commission amid calls to scrap staff cap

By Shannon Jenkins

November 11, 2019


Labor and the union representing Australia’s national science agency have ramped up their opposition to staffing caps, while the agency has appeared before the Fair Work Commission.

The CSIRO Staff Association, a branch of the Community and Public Sector Union, met with the shadow minister for industry, employment, science and small business, Brendon O’Connor, and Labor MP Sharon Claydon in Newcastle last week to discuss the strict cap imposed by the federal government on the CSIRO.

The meeting highlighted the impact the staffing cap has had on “overburdened” CSIRO staff, Claydon said. She argued it could cause scientists to reject new energy projects, and could prevent young scientists from entering the workforce, which was “conflicting” with attempts to actually encourage students to take up STEM subjects at school.

“[We’re] really seeing what that cap’s doing in terms of closing the pipeline that once existed for those students coming through to get jobs and to be researching in this area,” she said, noting that many students intern with CSIRO over the summer period.

Those interns will hopefully be able to still be placed over the summer period but they have zero chance of securing any kind of even casual employment at CSIRO. So that is a very real constraint right now on the brightest minds and potential of a young STEM students coming through, cutting off their potential right now.”

The cap on CSIRO’s annual average staffing level (ASL) currently sits at 5,193, which the agency has already met. Last month, staffers anonymously cited the restrictions the cap had already imposed on their work, and the harm it could do to the organisation in the future.

Read more: CSIRO staff reveal struggles under APS staff cap

But the agency boss has argued the cap would not be as detrimental to CSIRO as has been perceived due to other ways of getting work done.

CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall told Senate estimates last month there would be no redundancies “or anything like that”.

“I think, in practice, [the cap] is 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,” he said.

The organisation has a flexible workforce size and has become the “most collaborative and connected part of the whole science system”, Marshall added. It has been working with universities more often in order to improve outcomes for Australia without increasing its number of permanent staff.

“We also have a lot of students that work in CSIRO and, we think of them as interns but the technical name for them is, postdocs. These are kids that have just graduated, and they come into CSIRO to actually work on an industry project so that they’re more employable by industry. They tend to cycle through as well.”

“We’ve also created a number of what we call joint appointments, where we take a CSIRO person and we make them a professor at a university and they have two roles. That’s good for ASL because it only accounts for half on our books and half on the university’s books. It’s also good for connecting the universities better to industry.”

CSIRO chief operating officer Judi Zielke said the agency has been approaching recruitment on a “case-by-case basis”. The agency has roughly 100 positions being advertised at any one time. When entering a project, the agency would often recruit people for the term of that project, and currently has around 1140 temporary staff on term appointments for up to three years, Zielke noted.

However, such practices could be a breach of the union’s enterprise agreement, according to Staff Association secretary Sam Popovski. CSIRO management appeared before the Fair Work Commission on November 11 to defend their use of contractors and labour hire.

“We’ve taken this action because it’s clear that to get around the cap CSIRO is outsourcing work to contractors, consultants and labour hire firms that is clearly of an ongoing and indefinite nature; and in our opinion that’s a clear breach of the rules,” he said in a statement.

“Rather than adopting an ASL strategy that potentially breaches legal agreements, Dr Marshall should immediately seek relief from the federal government to ease staffing cap restrictions.”

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