A Melbourne Islamic school which breached the Fair Work Act has been hit with one of the largest fines given to an Australian school.
On Wednesday, the Australian International Academy of Education (AIAE) – formerly King Khalid Islamic College – was found by a Federal Court to have employed too many teachers on fixed-term contracts and falsified paperwork.
Federal Court Justice, Christopher Jessup, described the school’s practice as “calculated deception”.
The school was slapped with a fine of $150,000, which law firm, Maurice Blackburn, called “one of the largest award of penalties ever against an Australian school”.
“This case is a warning signal for any schools misusing fixed term contracts,” Daniel Victory, a senior associate at the firm, told The Advertiser.
AIAE director general, Salah Salman, and the school must now pay a large portion of the Independent Education Union of Australia’s (IEU) legal costs.
Hundreds of teachers living in ‘career-holding pattern’
Deb James, general secretary of the IEU’s Victoria and Tasmania branch, told The Educator that the ruling should prompt employers to educate themselves about putting teachers on fixed-term contracts.
James said that while some schools abide by the rules of fixed-term employment, hundreds of members are forced to live in “a career-holding pattern”.
“They can’t budget, they can’t plan holidays or build a lifestyle because of the job insecurity that comes with fixed-term employment,” she said.
“Think about it, how do you save money, buy a car; a house, start or manage a family if you know that in one or three or six months’ time you could be unemployed?”
James said the latest case illustrated that teachers are “not place holders for school budgets” or “a stop gap until an employer makes their mind up”.
“They are people. They deserve our respect and commitment, like they commit to caring for, and teaching our children. As far as the schools are concerned, fixed-term employment creates another set of issues,” she said.
“Schools and parents desire consistency and certainty, and fixed-term employment militates against these important aims.”
Broader action expected
NSW/ACT IEU assistant secretary, Mark Northam, told The Educator that he expects broader action against this practice now that the ruling has been handed down.
“Given that this has been a high-profile case with a significant monetary penalty attached to it, we anticipate that our membership will be in contact with us to check that their positions are legitimate,” he said.
“I imagine that this will change the landscape and prompt employers to draw breath before they consider using temporary contracts that aren’t legitimate.”
Northam said fixed-term contracts were sometimes used as a “de-facto probationary period” for teachers which he said can become complex over time.
However, Northam said Catholic systemic schools have a strong industrial agreement that outlines five definitions for when schools can employ a temporary teacher.
“Hopefully, that shields our members from the excesses of employers who choose to have a different approach,” he said.
Misuse of contracts ‘impacts on health and well-being’
James said teachers and support staff should be able to focus on delivering the best education and the best possible learning environment, and should not have be worried about whether they will have a job to go to.
“They [employers] must understand that fixed term contracts should not be considered an option unless they meet very specific criteria,” she said.
“Our teachers are a valuable resource and the misuse of fixed-term contracts impacts directly on their health and wellbeing, as well as their ability to plan their lives.
She added that the latest decision sends a message to all employers that the IEU will “fight for fair and reasonable employment”.
“We have written to independent schools offering to assist them to ensure that they are complying with their obligations not to abuse fixed-term employment,” James said.
“If schools continue to willingly avoid these obligations, we will conduct inspections and prosecute recalcitrant employers.”