Wage theft in Aussie universities

Striking lecturers at Melbourne University highlight the poor working conditions caused by a lack of staff and underfunding

‘WAGE theft is flourishing in Australian universities, with at least three elite institutions in the midst of underpayment scandals!’ says the National Education Union (NTEU).

The union announced last Friday that it is ‘ramping up calls to increase penalties for employers who steal from their workforce and give unions greater powers to prevent the practice.’
Revelations include:

  • The University of Melbourne faces a series of backpay claims for unpaid wages of at least half a million, ranging well into the millions of dollars.

Casual academic employees were being paid ‘piece rates’ for marking rather than being paid for all hours actually worked as required by their enterprise agreement; they were being instructed to attend lectures and not being paid, despite having the entitlement to be paid for this work; they had their teaching reclassified from ‘tutorials’ to ‘practice classes’ to justify being paid less for ostensibly the same work.
This happened at faculties including Arts, Fine Arts and Music, Science, and Engineering.
The University has admitted liability in each.
Back pay claims range as far back as six years.

  • The University of Western Australia denied appropriate payment for tutorials by describing them as ‘information sessions’ to attract a rate-of-pay between one-half and two-thirds lower than the proper rate.

Despite agreeing to an audit of this practice, it is now claiming legal professional privilege over the results.

  • The University of NSW is conducting a wage theft audit after an NTEU survey of casual academic staff revealed concerns regarding the payment of wages.

‘The key driver of wage theft is casual and insecure employment, which is absolutely rife at Australian universities,’ said Dr Alison Barnes, NTEU National President.
‘Approximately seven in ten university workers are insecurely employed, creating a fertile environment for exploitation.
‘Wage theft has terrible consequences. It deprives modestly paid casual workers of the income to pay bills, plan for their future or take a basic holiday. We know of cases where members have lost up to half the income they should be entitled to.
‘This is widespread in our sector. We need tougher penalties for those who steal from their workers, including criminal penalties.
‘Unions need far better access to records including for former employees and non-members. And we need the right to inspect those records quickly, without having to wait 24 hours.
‘Australian universities should also be compelled to report accurate figures on casual and limited contract employment. This would provide a much clearer picture of which university employees are likely to be exploited.’
Melbourne University’s announcement it will cut 450 jobs is ‘an appalling decision that should be frozen until a thorough, independent review of its finances can be undertaken,’ declared the union.
Last Friday’s decision came on the same day the University faces serious scrutiny over its longstanding practice of underpaying casual staff.
‘We are deeply sceptical when Australia’s richest university cries poor and claims its only option is to cut almost five per cent of its workforce,’ said NTEU Melbourne University President, Steve Adams.
By its own admission, Melbourne University has almost $4.5 billion in reserves.
Many hundreds of casual and fixed terms employees have already lost their livelihoods.
Adams continued: ‘Before university management  decimates its most important asset, its workforce, even further, it should work co-operatively with staff to undertake a thorough, independent review of all expenditure.
‘Cutting jobs should be the absolute last option, yet it is clearly the first impulse of university management. There are many options available before resorting to massive job cuts, but management has taken a short cut with crude cost cutting.’
NTEU Victoria Asssistant Secretary, Sarah Roberts said the decision was appalling.
‘Melbourne University management is demeaning the reputation and status of an incredibly important national institution.
‘This is short sighted and self defeating. When the economy bounces back Melbourne University will lack many of the bright, committed people who have contributed so much to its success.
‘The Commonwealth Government’s stubborn refusal to provide a real rescue package for our sector has encouraged university managers to wield the axe. We desperately need better leadership in higher education, both at a national and campus level. Where is our “bridge to the other side” of this crisis?’

  • More than 500 workers at the Woolworths Distribution Centre at Wyong, (on the New South Wales Central Coast) who are all members members of the United Workers Union (UWU), have won a victory and voted on August 6th to accept an improved offer from their employer and return to work.

The workers had maintained a picket outside the distribution centre for almost two weeks, after they were locked out on July 24.
They were demanding pay parity with workers doing the same job for the same company, less than two hours away in Sydney.
The Wyong workers were paid between 8% and 16% less than their Sydney counterparts. They had also called for a ratio of 80% permanent to 20% casual staff.
They will receive increases of between 11.2% and 17.4% over three years – almost double what was offered before the lock out.
The company has also agreed to the 80:20 permanent to casual ratio and given casuals the right to convert to permanent after 12 months.
The company has also offered to double the redundancy cap, if the site is closed, from 40 weeks to 82 weeks.
It has agreed to the union’s demand for recognition, including paid union meetings, and agreed to paid family and domestic violence leave and natural disaster leave.
In March, 87.4% of workers voted in favour of taking protected action for their claim for wage parity and informed the company on July 20 of their intention to take strike action.
Negotiations over the next three days failed as the company refused to agree to an acceptable offer, announcing an indefinite lockout on July 24.
Robert Quick, a UWU delegate who has worked at the centre for 14 years, said this was the first time industrial action had been taken over an enterprise agreement.
‘The issue is equality,’ he said. ‘We want parity with Sydney. We work for the same company but get $5 an hour less for doing exactly the same job.
‘We have been told that because we live on the Central Coast we cannot expect to get Sydney wages. It’s just not right. Our mortgages, rates, food and petrol prices are only minimally different from Sydney, if at all.
‘We’ve had a lot of support from other unions, including the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Electrical Trades Union and the metal workers, for which we are very grateful.’