End wage theft at universities

June 24, 2021
Graphic: Green Left

University workers are suffocating from a dual onslaught: the federal government’s cuts to funding and university managements continuing to slash jobs and courses.

The federal budget will cut funds to universities by 9.3% over three years. But rather than push to increase funds, university managements are using the crisis to further squeeze workers while filling their own coffers.

Last year, vice chancellors received, on average, annual salaries upwards of $1 million. At the same time, 17,000 university workers lost their jobs, ostensibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but really it was because of universities’ support for neoliberal funding models.

Universities were denied JobSeeker, but instead of pushing for workers’ job security, management falsely claimed a loss of revenue and laid staff off.

The job cuts have continued this year. Moreover, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) estimates around 1800 courses and more than 150 degree programs will be cut by managements.

Casual and precarious workers continue to prop up the day-to-day running of universities with their cheap labour.

Casual and precarious workers, academic and professional, are repeatedly and purposely allocated less hours in their contracts than is needed to complete their work, meaning that they have to work more hours than they are paid for.

This is wage theft. At least 10 public universities are involved in serious wage theft disputes right now.

The University of New South Wales noted in its June 2 annual report it was allocating up to $36 million to pay back stolen wages. Last year, after a hard-fought campaign led by casual staff, Melbourne University was forced to pay back billions in stolen wages.

Wage theft is systemic and university managements have “normalised” such arrangements as their preferred funding model.

A May 18 report by the University of Sydney (Usyd) Casuals Network detailed the extent of the wage theft. The Tip of the Iceberg: A Report into Wage Theft and Underpayment of Casual Staff at the University of Sydney is based on an audit of 29 casuals across 44 contracts during Semester 2 last year. It recorded the real hours worked by casuals and compared this with the hours casuals are paid under their Enterprise Agreements (EAs).

Shockingly, the audit revealed 90% performed unpaid work during that semester and that women had 1.5 times the amount of wages stolen compared to men.

Casual and fixed-term staff “are a cheaper option than permanent staff due to their being hired on short, piecemeal contracts”, it said.

While the report focussed on one university, it also illustrate the structural nature of wage theft across the sector.

Contracts for casual staff are also problematic, as EAs often include weak clauses which allow universities to get away with underpaying casual workers.

The NTEU Sydney branch is now assisting the USyd Casuals Network to pursue an underpayment claim for casuals to receive back pay for wages that have been stolen over the last six years.

The Casuals Network and the NTEU invited the university’s Vice Chancellor Stephen Garton and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Annamarie Jagose to respond to questions on the audit’s findings at a public forum on June 17.

Jagose and Garton gave spurious arguments in reply, including contesting the definition of wage theft. They did admit, however, that if the university was found to have committed wage theft, casual workers would have to be reimbursed.

Garton deflected blame to “Canberra’s broken [university] funding model” and claimed that bigger teacher loads would be necessary. He said the model the NTEU has long fought for — 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% administration — was not sustainable.

NTEU Sydney branch president Patrick Brownlee said Garton’s “solution” would hurt workers. He said the VC’s ideas fitted with a national push to turn universities into purely teaching institutions while reducing their research arms.

Universities are now moving into a period of enterprise bargaining. Workers are organising to defend not only their own working conditions but the quality of education and research.

The stakes are very high.

Industrial action may well be needed if education workers are going to be able to achieve better conditions for casual work as well as opportunities to move to permanent positions.

Green Left has consitently supported workers’ struggles for fair pay and workgin conditions. If you like our work, become a supporter and donate to our Fighting Fund.

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