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Australia University of Melbourne in decade-long 'wage theft' case

23:07  04 august  2020
23:07  04 august  2020 Source:   msn.com

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a large clock tower in front of a building: The University of Melbourne annual report lists $4.43 billion in reserves while 72.9 per cent of staff are in insecure work. (ABC News: Patrick Stone) © Provided by ABC Business The University of Melbourne annual report lists $4.43 billion in reserves while 72.9 per cent of staff are in insecure work. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Millions of dollars are being quietly repaid to at least 1,500 academics in a "wage theft" case involving four faculties at Australia's richest tertiary institution, the University of Melbourne.

The dispute involves university management classifying tutorials as "practice classes" to avoid paying staff the full rate, therefore reducing wages by up to a third.

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Universities also allocated academics just three minutes to mark student assessments, and paid them a set marking "piece rate" in accordance with this.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said the situation was both "diabolical" and "systemic", with the practices occurring at two other top-tier universities and casualisation leaving staff vulnerable to working for free.

"What happened at Melbourne University is really just the tip of the iceberg," NTEU national secretary Alison Barnes said.

"If it can happen at an institution like the University of Melbourne, which is one of our most affluent, then it can happen at any university."

Some of the practices date back a decade or more, but academics — fearful of losing work in an already insecure sector — are only now speaking out.

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NTEU Victorian assistant secretary Sarah Roberts helped negotiate a settlement.

"I like to think of these casual employees having to go to their employer like Oliver saying, 'Please sir, can I have some more?'" she said.

Plans to compensate staff under the Fair Work Act (FWA) are underway, however the union and management are still technically in dispute.

The University of Melbourne's latest annual report lists $4.43 billion in reserves while 72.9 per cent of staff are in insecure work.

Faculty of Arts staff owed estimated $6m

The University of Melbourne has sent letters to 615 tutors in the Faculty of Arts asking them to lodge claims by the end of the week.

This first tranche is for tutors still employed by the university, such as history tutor Shan Windscript.

Ms Windscript helped organise a grassroots fightback of casual staff that has been going for two years.

"We have to work multiple jobs just to survive. Meanwhile, we have our vice-chancellor getting paid twice as much as the Prime Minister," she said.

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"A lot of our casuals are single-parent carers, migrant workers in vulnerable positions."

Ms Windscript alleged she was underpaid $11,000 under the recently scrapped marking rate requiring 4,000 words per hour including student feedback.

Unions estimate this paid staff for just half of the time they spent working.

The university ended the rate last month as part of the FWA negotiation.

The ABC understands one tutor in this group is claiming $91,000 and a "conservative" union estimate suggests the entire claim may total $6 million — an average of $10,000 per worker.

Ms Windscript feels "betrayed and angry" and says having to fight for fair pay while insecurely employed takes a heavy toll.

"Like many precarious workers, I have been struggling with chronic and recurrent mental health issues over the years since I entered the university as a PhD student," she said.

The claim has also stopped a practice in the Faculty of Arts where tutors were "encouraged" to attend a lecture for the class they were teaching but were not paid.

Engineering, science and fine arts tutors also affected

The university has already repaid $99,000 to about 425 engineering tutors who were not paid for marking that the faculty said should have been completed during tutorials.

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Staff at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music will also receive letters offering to rectify underpayments for marking which occurred in their department that applied the same fixed rate.

The fourth dispute involves the Faculty of Science, which paid staff just one third of the usual rate for tutorials since 2009 by instead labelling them "practice classes".

"Instead of people getting the three-hour payment for each hour of tutorial, the tutorials have been reclassified as practice classes, which means that they've only been able to receive the one-hour payment," Ms Roberts said.

Hundreds of staff are expected to claim money, but the statute of limitations means payments can only go back as far as 2014.

The University of Melbourne declined a request for an interview, but a spokesperson said it was working "collaboratively" with the NTEU.

"The university agreed with the NTEU's position on these matters and settled them with the union in late 2019," the spokesperson said.

"It was acknowledged previously engaged sessional casuals affected by the dispute would have an opportunity to seek review of their prior attendance and where applicable receive a correction to their pay."

By last month, the university ended all practices that caused underpayment. The university also established a confidential working group with its human resources management and unions to resolve the dispute.

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What is wage theft?

Wage theft is the underpayment of staff through payments at lower rates than are required or avoiding superannuation and other legal requirements.

It mostly affects casual staff, who are usually in a weaker bargaining position.

McDonald's, 7-Eleven, Coles, Woolworths and the ABC have all had to repay significant amounts to staff.

Are other universities being scrutinised over underpayment?

The University of Western Australia told the ABC it engaged an outside organisation to audit its pay rates after allegations from the NTEU.

Macquarie University told the ABC it had repaid $50,000 to casual staff in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics after Fair Work involvement led to negotiations with the union.

The ABC also understands a third elite G8 school, the University of New South Wales, is conducting an audit after complaints about its Business School and it has alerted the Fair Work Ombudsman.

In a statement, a UNSW spokesperson confirmed some payments had been made, with others to come.

"We have made additional payments to all identified staff to rectify any errors. The university is now conducting a review into all payments made to casual academic staff in the Business School back to January 2014, assisted by external experts from a large accounting firm (Deloitte)," the spokesperson said.

"We also plan to undertake a review of all other faculties to identify any similar issues."

Dr Barnes said the problems were systemic across the sector because of the incredibly high rate of casualisation, recently revealed by the ABC.

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Victoria is the only state to pass laws specifically addressing wage theft and the union says the Federal Government needs to step in.

"It's an extraordinary situation where employers who engage in wage theft get a simple slap on the wrist," Dr Barnes said.

"It almost provides an incentive to try and drive wages down across our private providers."


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