Universities face legal action over wage theft claims

Revelations that nearly one in four of Australia’s universities have failed to pay their staff their full entitlements have led to them facing a wave of legal class actions.

Several of Australia’s top universities have been accused of underpaying their staff millions of dollars over the past decade or more. The universities of Melbourne, Monash, Murdoch, RMIT, Queensland and the University of Technology Sydney are among those facing legal action over underpayment of staff.

Others, including the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney and Macquarie University, have already begun repaying their underpaid employees, while the University of Western Australia is conducting an audit of its pay rates.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has taken Melbourne’s RMIT University to the Australian Fair Work Commission over pay rates that give tutors only 10 minutes to mark each student’s examination paper.

At other universities, academic whistleblowers have revealed they were told to ‘skim read’ assessments or not grade students at all to save money and time.

Millions recovered

NTEU President Dr Alison Barnes said the union had already recovered millions of dollars in “lost wages” for its members and was preparing further legal campaigns.

“[The union] is gathering information to launch a wave of class actions,” Barnes said. “We do not believe wage theft is confined to the 10 universities that have admitted to it.”

She said the NTEU had already recovered “millions of dollars in underpayment with millions more to come”.

“If a quarter of the sector now admits to underpayment you can be sure the problem goes a lot further,” Barnes said.

“The root cause of wage theft is insecure casual and contract employment. This creates a completely lopsided power dynamic.

“Managers feel confident to squeeze employees and employees are intimidated: They think if they enforce their rights, it will limit their career prospects, [but] insecure employment creates wage theft.”

Senate inquiry

The Australian Senate is currently conducting an inquiry into wage theft and Barnes said the union would like to see vice-chancellors appear before it “to explain their employment practices”.

“But, more importantly, we are pushing to flip the proportion of insecure employment in universities on its head. Currently, up to seven in 10 university employees are insecurely employed and this is scandalously high.”

Insecure employment should be “fleeting and rare” but, unfortunately, the opposite was currently true, Barnes said.

Hypocritical institutions

The union has accused some of Australia’s most prestigious and ‘cashed-up universities’ of hypocrisy as data reveals almost 70% of their staff are employed ‘insecurely’. Thousands have also been laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barnes said a record 69% of university staff in the state of Victoria were employed as casuals or on short-term contracts, although the Victorian figure was also reflected nationally.

“The numbers are terrible,” Barnes said. “They [the lecturers] have no financial security and that means it’s difficult for them to take holidays, get mortgages, plan a family... But it’s also that chronic insecurity leads to stress and problems of emotional well-being.”

A union investigation found that the ‘rush towards insecure work’ had been led by the University of Melbourne – Australia’s richest tertiary institution with reserves of AU$4.43 billion (US$3.3 billion) while employing 72.9% of its staff on insecure terms.

Monash University, the nation’s largest, runs a close second with 72.8% of its staff employed casually or on short-term contracts.

Monash, however, has “much smaller reserves of just over AU$1 billion”, the union says, while noting that the rise of insecure work has coincided with a decade of record revenues for the universities.

But Universities Australia, the national representative organisation, said the 39 public universities faced a combined revenue loss of up to AU$4.6 billion this year, caused by the massive fall in international student numbers because of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 viral pandemic.

Nevertheless, critics point out, Australia’s universities enjoyed an unprecedented AU$44 billion windfall from international student fees over the five years to 2019. In which case, they ask, where did that huge haul of cash go?