University of Melbourne penalised $74,590 for taking adverse action against two casual academics

The Fair Work Ombudsman has secured a total of $74,590 in penalties in court against the University of Melbourne for taking adverse action against two casual academics because they exercised workplace rights to make complaints or inquiries about their work.

The Federal Court imposed $37,295 in penalties after the University threatened to not re-employ the two casual academics in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education because they made complaints about being required to work more hours, without more payment, than the “anticipated hours” per subject in their contracts.

The court imposed a further $37,295 penalty after the university offered no further teaching work to one of the casual academics after she made a complaint or inquiry to the University by claiming payment for extra work.

Fair Work Ombudsman Anna Booth said the University of Melbourne’s conduct – which it admitted – impacted on fundamental employee rights.

“There is zero place for adverse action in our workplaces. Adverse action directly undermines workplace laws and the ability of employees to exercise their lawful rights – and this is unacceptable,” Ms Booth said.

“These adverse actions in this case are exactly the kind of workplace conduct that inhibits people speaking up about their rights.”

“We are investigating other allegations involving underpayment issues in a number of universities nationally, including failures to pay casual academics for all hours worked. The university sector is a regulatory priority for the agency.”

“Employers should have proactive measures in place to ensure they are meeting workplace laws. If employers become aware of concerns their employees may be being underpaid, including directly from the employees, the only appropriate response is to check that they are paying their employees correctly and promptly rectify any compliance issues discovered,” Ms Booth said.

Under the Fair Work Act, it is unlawful for an employer to take adverse action against a person because a person exercises a workplace right or to prevent them from doing so.

In imposing the penalties, Justice Craig Dowling said the casual academics “were entitled to complain or inquire about their ability to perform their work within the “anticipated hours” contained in their contracts of employment. Those complaints should have been free of consequence.”

“The threat, that if they claimed additional hours they would not receive future work, was a serious contravention of the Act. The penalty must be sufficient to deter any repetition by the University or any other person in a position to contravene the Act,” Justice Dowling said.

Justice Dowling said there was a need for specific deterrence given that the University employs “a significant percentage of casual employees and an even greater percentage of fixed term employees”.

“Those employees are not ongoing academics and are dependent on the University for the renewal of their casual or fixed-term contracts of employment. They are vulnerable to the type of contravening conduct engaged in by the University in this matter,” His Honour said.

The University compensated one academic $4,000 and the other $10,000 for their “non-economic loss”. In submissions to the court, the University apologised for its contraventions and acknowledged the need to improve.

A separate litigation filed in February 2023 against the University of Melbourne relating to alleged underpayments of casual staff in the Faculty of Arts and the making of false or misleading records remains before the court. In this separate litigation, unlike today’s decision, the Fair Work Ombudsman alleges Serious Contraventions within the meaning of section 557A of the Fair Work Act.

Ms Booth said employers and employees can visit or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 for free advice and assistance, including on the protection against adverse action

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