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Speech: University wage theft

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 11 Nov 2020

Over the last few months I've been participating in the Senate inquiry into unlawful underpayment of employees' remuneration, otherwise known as wage theft. This inquiry is soon going to focus on wage theft in Australian universities. Following the series of investigative pieces published by the ABC's national education reporter, Conor Duffy, and in response to my own questions to the Fair Work Commission, I have referred 13 universities to make submissions and give evidence to the inquiry. Most of them have now made written submissions. Sadly, most of the universities have responded incredibly defensively. They say that, while there may have been errors, oversights or mistakes in paying staff their correct wages, there are no systemic problems. Frankly, this does not stack up with the evidence.

A survey undertaken by the National Tertiary Education Union in August found widespread problems with underpayment in the sector. This survey, which amassed over 2,000 responses, found that more than three-quarters of academic casuals are not being paid for all their hours of marking outside of class time. Almost 40 per cent of the academic casuals said that tutorials at their institutions are described as other things, such as information sessions, so they are paid less than the full rate. A majority identified administration as a task they are expected to do but for which they don't get paid. There were also many professional non-academic staff who participated and shared their experiences of long-term casual employment.

These findings are backed up by a new report released just last week by the USyd Casuals Network at the University of Sydney. This involved an audit of casual staff working hours. It found that 84 per cent of participants performed unpaid work during the audit period. Their stolen wages totalled almost $48,000 over the six-week audit, or about $2,500 each on average. Respondents also reported unpaid administrative work, saying they were given 48 minutes per week to complete all administrative tasks, yet reported working six times more than this to get everything done. Women reported having 2.5 times more stolen wages than men. The network says the audit report reflects systemic wage theft at the university. Let's be clear, though: this is not just about Sydney uni; casualisation has run rampant across the whole higher education sector. As government funding has dried up and universities have become more corporatised quasi businesses, they are no longer places where stable and secure work can be considered the norm.

So far, I've been really disappointed by how the sector management has responded. As I said, individual university submissions have, on the whole, been very defensive. In their submission to the Senate inquiry, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association said that it takes exception to the NTEU's unsubstantiated assertions that Australian universities operate under a business model that involves the deliberate underpayment of their staff. The association points, as so many of the universities have done, to mistakes that have meant that a small number of staff may have been underpaid. This isn't good enough. Now is an opportunity for the universities to hit reset. They can participate in the Senate inquiry in good faith; they can come to the table; they can acknowledge that casual staff have a tough gig and have been, in many cases, terribly mistreated.

In the aftermath of the hideous job-ready-graduates laws passing, and in the context of COVID-19, morale amongst university staff is at historic lows. More than 10,000 have already lost their jobs. Universities should be stepping up and backing their staff and participating in these processes with a view to making things better. Whether that might involve supporting legislative change or looking at how enterprise agreements and other industrial agreements are drafted, and making sure that secure jobs replace casual ones, there are ways to resolve this issue to ensure staff are treated and paid fairly. I look forward to working on this with university staff over the coming months and to supporting them to get a better deal. Ultimately, we should be reimagining our universities to be model places of employment where staff are fairly paid, have excellent conditions and a lifelong career if they want one.


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