Victorian universities have received the highest bill for underpayment claims in the country, accused of owing more than $50 million in wages to workers over the past three years.
According to the National Tertiary Education Union’s Wage Theft Report, released on Monday, higher education workers across Australia have been underpaid by $83.4 million over three years, with the University of Melbourne totaling $31.6 million of claims from four separate incidents – the highest figure in the country.
Academic Kate Clark has received a payout from the University of Melbourne.Credit:Penny Stephens/The Age
The national figure includes 34 separate incidents across 22 universities in which a dollar amount has been disclosed.
Most recently, the Fair Work Ombudsman filed a writ in the Federal Court in early February against the University of Melbourne, alleging it breached the Fair Work Act between February 2017 and 2019 and underpaid 14 casual academics by a total of $154,424 by using benchmarks rather than hours.
The national figure could rise further after three ongoing cases – without a disclosed sum – are settled.
NTEU national president Alison Barnes said the union’s report showed systemic wage theft had been baked into universities’ business models.
“The sheer scale of wage theft in higher education is staggering. It’s absolutely shameful that so many Australian university staff have had wages stolen,” she said.
The union says the practice can include being paid for fewer hours than the work rates, paying piece rates for marking instead of actual time worked, unpaid overtime and teaching misclassification.
Barnes says the real figure could be much higher.
“Whilst Victoria is the standout, I think wage theft is commonplace across our public universities and that’s a damning indictment,” she said.
“I don’t think university management can be trusted to solve the problem.”
Kate Clark, from Northcote, was a casual tutor and lecturer at the University of Melbourne between 2015 and 2019 and received more than $75,000 in backpay for between 800 and 850 hours of work.
The 31-year-old said she was paid for an hour for every 4000 words of marking, but it took at least double that time.
“It dawned on me that I felt like I let myself be taken advantage of. It was a really hard thing to come to terms with,” she said.
Clark said the underpayment was “demoralising” and hindered her ability to save money. During the three-month university break, she struggled to pay rent and buy food.
“You feel like your work, expertise, knowledge and passion for something doesn’t matter. You start to feel like you are not worth being paid properly and your knowledge isn’t worth that,” she said.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has been zeroing in on the university sector.
In August 2022, it launched legal actions against the University of Melbourne involving two casual academics.
Peter Coaldrake, chief commissioner of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, said in Senate estimates on Thursday that the problems in the sector needed to be ironed out at the top of the institutions. He applauded institutions that had come forward, repaid money and tried to remediate the situation.
The agency said universities should ensure staff are working in line with their enterprise agreements and provide evidence they are closely monitoring and ensuring compliance.
A University of Melbourne spokesperson said the university was working to reduce its reliance on casual employment, to rethink its workforce model and to improve employment and management practices, including creating compliance-focused roles, designing a new scheduling model, working to identify practices that are inconsistent with its obligations and setting up a wage remediation program.
RMIT said it took compliance obligations seriously and resolved an academic’s marking-payment dispute with the union in 2021 without admission of liability to ensure a timely resolution.
A Monash University spokesperson said the university was improving its systems and committed to paying staff correctly in line with the enterprise agreement. Since early 2021, it has transferred more than 600 casual and sessional employees to more secure employment, but most of its casual staff were either PhD students or staff employed elsewhere who delivered specialised expertise.
A University of Sydney spokesperson said the report did not accurately portray the state of universities today. She said the University of Sydney served the public good and, unlike a business, any surplus was reinvested back into the institution.
In 2020, when the university became aware of errors in payments, it committed to fixing them and remediating affected staff as quickly as possible, keeping the Fair Work Ombudsman abreast of its steps. “We do not agree with the inference the university has deliberately avoided paying staff correctly. We are absolutely committed to ensuring all our staff receive their full entitlements, and have a process to ensure any claims of underpayment are carefully investigated and resolved appropriately,” she said.
Education Minister Jason Clare said the government was committed to introducing legislation by the end of the year to criminalise underpaying workers.
The NTEU’s Barnes is pushing for “wage theft” to carry strong penalties, including jail time for bosses in the most serious cases, and effective casual conversion provisions to address insecure work.
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