- The Guardian
- Issue #2041
Monash University Parkville Pharmacy. Photo: Canley – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Last year Monash University launched an extraordinary bid to avoid repaying millions of dollars in wages allegedly owed to sessional and casual staff.
The University applied to the Fair Work Commission to retrospectively change its enterprise agreement covering Monash staff.
Monash’s application was made less than four weeks after the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) launched wage theft proceedings in the Federal Court.
The NTEU alleges the university systemically underpaid sessional teaching staff by requiring them to deliver scheduled student consultation as unpaid “associated work” tied to the rate they receive for delivering tutorials.
The NTEU also notes that the university’s push is an attempt to prevent paying millions of dollars in back pay owed across multiple university faculties and schools.
“It seems Monash University will go to any lengths to avoid paying workers potentially millions owed in allegedly stolen wages,” NTEU National President Alison Barnes said.
“Instead of bending over backwards to shirk responsibility, Monash should own up and pay up.
“We’ll vigorously fight Monash’s attempt to wriggle out of its obligations to pay staff, which are clearly outlined in the enterprise agreement the university now wants to change after being called out by the union.”
There are fears it could encourage other employers to employ similar tactics.
“This case has economy-wide implications,” NTEU Monash Branch President Ben Eltham said.
“If employers can respond to underpayment claims by retrospectively varying their Agreements, this could have a chilling effect on underpayment claims brought by employees across the economy.”
The university’s extraordinary Fair Work application came days after almost 100 affected Monash employees and students staged a protest at Monash’s Clayton campus.
In 2021, in a separate case, Monash University admitted to underpaying its casual academic staff $8.6 million over a six-year period. Speaking generally, Barnes said wage theft was a rampant sector-wide problem.
“Wage theft is a cancer that must be cut out of higher education,” she said. “Universities have paid back millions in unpaid wages thanks to the efforts of brave NTEU members who have stood up.
“This is exactly why wage theft needs to be made a crime and more secure jobs delivered to cut down on exploitation.”
In an extraordinary step, the university is disputing the interpretation of the Enterprise Agreement, specifically whether it has failed to properly pay the wages owed to casual academics across multiple faculties.
The dispute followed NTEU’s legal letter which alerted Monash to this wage theft. The NTEU then lodged Federal Court proceedings against the University.
The union alleges that Monash systematically directed casual academics to be available for student consultation during a weekly, scheduled consultation hour, outside of the delivery of tutorials, and has not paid them for this work.
Monash had been on notice that the union would file in the Court since last July. Rather than paying staff for that hour, academics were told it was “associated work” for the purpose of that tutorial rate.
The University’s position is that despite NTEU’s claims, it does not believe casual tutors should be paid separately for this work.
“If your boss at the cafe told you to come in and work a scheduled shift, you’d expect to be paid,” Eltham said. “Teaching at a major university should be no different.”
“Monash University is directing academics to teach scheduled classes, on campus and face to face with students, but telling tutors they don’t deserve payment for those classes.
“Monash University claims it delivers education of the ‘highest international quality,’ but you can’t deliver high-quality education if you won’t pay your teachers.”
“Rampant wage theft is a sector-wide issue underpinning universities business models,” NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes said.
“The scale of the problem is completely outrageous and shows exactly why we need the federal government to make wage theft a crime.
“Wage theft is directly linked to the scourge of insecure work, with casual and fixed-term staff disproportionately affected.
“That’s why we need a definition of casual employment suitable for higher education and proper funding for more permanent roles.”
Monash University has issued a dispute, rejecting the NTEU’s allegations and claiming it did not underpay casual staff.
The union’s statement of claim, lodged in the Federal Court, alleges serious contraventions of the Fair Work Act using the example of two casual academics employed at Monash between 2015 and 2022.
The allegations are separate to Monash University’s admission it underpaid $8.6 million to casual academics in September 2021.
Monash University recorded a consolidated pre-tax operating surplus of $416 million in 2021.