As a Casual Academic, The Last Thing I Need is 'Equal Superannuation'
a well-intentioned idea that would hurt more than it would help
I’ve been a casual academic and a member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) since 2020. I’ve seen and heard of squabbles between casual and permanent workers, more and less militant organisers, Trotskyists and ex-Trotskyists, and so on. Clearly there’s lots to disagree about in the NTEU. But one surprising area of agreement has been on the issue of ‘equal superannuation’ for casuals. Everyone’s for it, at least in theory. Except for me.
The argument for equal super is fairly straightforward. Casual academics tend to receive the minimum superannuation guarantee (11% of their earnings) while those in permanent roles typically receive a higher rate (usually 17% of their earnings). This means that a casual lecturer receives a lower super rate than a continuing or fixed-term lecturer, even for equal work. More than unfair, some argue that it incentivises casualisation and contributes to gender inequality as women are disproportionately employed as casuals.
Casuals would benefit a lot from higher pay and improvements in other conditions, like leave entitlements, but most of them wouldn’t benefit from equal super. We’re poor now, so they need higher incomes now. We’re entitled to very little in terms of equal pay (due to wage theft), leave or secure work. I frequently hear people say things like “I hope I’ll have a job next semester”, “I wish I was getting paid appropriately for the amount of work I’m doing”, and “I can’t afford to keep doing this, I hope I can find a permanent position somewhere” but I never hear anyone say “I wish a higher proportion of my earnings went into my super so I’ll have more slightly more money when I retire”.
The reason why I never hear this isn’t because casuals are irrational or bad at planning for the future. It’s because they really do need higher incomes and better conditions now and there really is an observable trade-off between higher rates of superannuation and higher wages. More super means lower wage rises. Even if you want to deny this, there is obviously going to be some trade-off involved if you prioritise higher super during bargaining. That trade-off might be worth it for higher income workers with permanent jobs, who could do without higher wages and will be able to accrue much more for retirement through super.1
Equal super is only equal as a percentage of income. Individuals benefit the most from super when they are consistently earning money over the course of their entire life. For example, take someone earning $1000 every week of the year and receiving 17% in super. They would, ignoring tax, receive roughly $8840.85 in super that year. Now imagine someone earning $1250 for 24 weeks of the year and $0 during the rest of the year, who also receives 17% super. They would receive $5100 in super. That’s only $1900 more than they’d get if they only received the 11% super guarantee instead.
17% super might get permanent staff to a more optimal rate of saving than 11% super. Clearly the same is not true for casual workers. Insecure work, regardless of the super rate, means insecure super contributions. Casuals don’t earn any super when they’re not working. When they are working, they’re going to put their pay towards their bills and ideally towards a more liquid pool of savings in their bank account.2
Equal super is simply not worth it for most casuals, who need more money now and still won’t reap the benefits of a super system that rewards consistent earnings over insecure employment. This is, incidentally, the same sort of reason why unemployed people don’t campaign for the government to pay 11% super on JobSeeker payments. There are many good reasons to fight for the right to a fair income and secure work but I don’t see why anyone should ask their employer to force them to engage in suboptimal saving.
Realistically this ends up becoming a tax-advantaged inheritance vehicle that worsens intergenerational wealth inequality, but that’s another story. You can at least see why those workers would benefit from it while casual academics wouldn’t.
This is the main reason that women tend to have much lower super balances than men. Even assuming equal wages and equal super, women would have less super than men because they’re more likely to spend more time outside of paid work (performing domestic labour, carer responsibilities etc.) and earn lower lifetime incomes.