Home | News | ‘I needed that money’: UniMelb casuals to receive $22 million in underpayment case

‘I needed that money’: UniMelb casuals to receive $22 million in underpayment case

Around 15,000 casual staff from the University of Melbourne will receive $22m in back payment after a new review revealed ongoing underpayment by the university over an eight-year period.

The announcement made by Vice-Chancellor professor Duncan Maskell last week follows an analysis of more than 3.2 million payslip records for current and former casual employees. 

At the time, academic and non-academic casual staff were under a 2013 and 2018 enterprise agreements.

Maskell apologised to “any past or present employees who have not been paid correctly for work they performed”.

"We are committed to remediating these discrepancies and fully complying with our obligations,” he said. 

While the review conducted by Deloitte found the average payment per person would be $1476 including superannuation and interest, Ashley, a staff member who spoke to Campus Review on a first name basis, claimed he is owed $12,000.

Over eight years, Ashley has had 12 different roles at the university and he said in 10 of these roles he has experienced wage theft.

While he believes he should be happy to get his money back, he describes the experience as “disgusting” and “upsetting”.

"There's been times in my life where I needed that money, it would've been less stress for me and on my relationships - it would've made a significant change,” Ashley told Campus Review.  

The staff member said he had been aware of his unpaid wages for a while and had raised the issue with his manager multiple times without success. 

“I told my manager about my concerns regarding how our time cards were being processed and the inaccuracies of it in terms of what would then translate into our pay.

"I was told that if I'm not happy I can leave the university or if I was to raise that concern again I would not have my contracts renewed in the following year.” he said. 

NTEU branch secretary at the University of Melbourne David Gonzalez said the relationship between the casual employee and their manager could impact ‘wage theft’. 

"Ultimately these people approve the time cards and at times casuals feel pressured to not submit hours because they are told they won’t get paid or won't get a job again, '' Gonzalez told Campus Review.

"There is a real retraining and management issue.”

In 2021, the university had introduced mandatory training and instruction for HR and managing staff in order to raise awareness on the compliance requirements associated with the enterprise agreement. 

Findings of the review revealed 59 per cent of underpayments were due to incorrect payment for the casual minimum engagement period and 29 per cent for public holiday and weekend overtime.

According to the NTEU, ‘wage theft’ could be avoided by converting casual positions into permanent roles.

The union submitted a bargaining claim asking for at least 80 per cent of all casual positions to be converted into permanent jobs. 

“We think that wage theft is a symptom of the casualization at our university and we will only eliminate the issue if we significantly downscale casualization,” Gonzalez said.

“It's within the power of the university to do it, a lot of these casual positions are teaching ongoing courses - if there is ongoing work, these should be ongoing jobs.”

In 2021, the university annual report found that 57 per cent of staff were employed permanently, the remaining 43 per cent being on fixed term contracts or casuals.

Jess who wishes to remain anonymous, has been a casual academic for six years, she would love to see her position transformed into a permanent role as it would give her some “security for what the future might look like”.

“Being casual affects your whole life's ability to go ahead, your ability to take a break, to develop career goals, to plan future research and improve your teaching skills,” Jess told Campus Review.

“You end up dreading summer coming around rather than being celebratory because you're wondering how you're going to get through that period and whether you’ll have a job again.”

Jess is now waiting to know how much money she’ll get back from the university. 

This is the second time she will receive a back payment as she was part of the $9.5 million that were previously repaid by UniMelb to casual academics for lost wages last year. 

In 2021, Jess received $20,000 from the university and her partner who’s also a casual tutor got $35,000; a significant amount she said.

"Suddenly we had a deposit payment for a home, we never imagined that we could work in the higher education sector and save for a home deposit.

"Little did we know that that's because we're being underpaid.”

Jess believes the university is now focusing on their “legal obligations” rather than their “staff wellbeing” and would like to see casualization tackled throughout the different faculties.

“I think they need to look more widely at casualization and the way it's affecting people's whole lives,” she said.

A spokesperson from UniMelb told Campus Review that the university recognises the current workforce structures which rely too heavily on casual employment are neither desirable nor sustainable.

"We are currently designing a comprehensive program of work to reduce our reliance on casual employment, to re-think our workforce model and improve our employment practices.

"This is an issue we are also discussing with the NTEU in the enterprise bargaining process currently under way," the spokesperson told Campus Review.

Back payments for current and former casual employees at the University of Melbourne will continue over the coming months, with additional tranches of payments to be made progressively.

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