NTEU alleges Deakin University committed “systematic wage theft”

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has accused Deakin University of systematically underpaying casual academics dating back to June 2018. The Union says the underpayment occurred after Deakin paid casual staff based on a ‘piece rate’ on a per course or assessment basis, instead of the hourly rate agreed to in the Enterprise Agreement between the parties.

In a dispute notice provided to Deakin on 20 June, the Union contends that the piece rate specified in the contracts of various casual academics significantly underestimates the time taken to mark assessments. The NTEU claimed that Deakin’s standardised piece rate guidelines fail to take into account the nature of the assessment, the complexity of marking and providing feedback, and the experience and role of the staff marking assessments.

The exact amount of money owed to casual academics is unknown. However, the NTEU alleges that the breaches may pertain to thousands of casual academics at the University, where casuals make up 31 per cent of the teaching workforce.

According to The Guardian, Deakin told employees in March that an internal audit commenced in 2020 found no evidence of systematic underpayment of casual employees. A Deakin spokesperson said in response to the NTEU’s claim that the University would “work with the union… to understand the specific issues raised” and committed to ensuring that the application of the enterprise agreement was “true and correct” across the organisation.

The NTEU’s claims come amid a suite of underpayment scandals across the tertiary education sector. The Fair Work Ombudsman is currently investigating 11 allegations of wage theft at Australian universities. A Senate enquiry established in 2019 found that at least 21 of Australia’s 40 public universities had underpaid staff. In 2021, Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker highlighted the prevalence of “large-scale systematic underpayment of employee wages in the sector”, noting that this particularly affected casual academics through the payment of piece rates.

A similar claim of wage theft from casual staff worth $2 million was lodged by the NTEU against the University of Sydney in October last year owing to USyd’s use of a piece rate. The previous month, the University of Sydney conceded that it had underpaid casual staff by $12.75 million.

The NTEU’s Victoria division Assistant Secretary Sarah Roberts said that casual employment and wage theft “go hand in hand”, attributing the reliance on casual work to public funding pressure forcing universities to cut corners. Roberts added that casual work establishes a system in which “the reliance on insecure work puts people in the position of being too afraid to say that there’s something wrong, because they’re scared of losing their jobs”.

The dispute notice provided to Deakin requested that university management cease the use of piece rate contracts and repay the money allegedly owed to workers, in addition to the Vice-Chancellor issuing a written apology to all casual academic staff. The NTEU highlighted that alleged breaches could attract substantial civil penalties and the University being held criminally liable under Victorian wage theft legislation.

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