Wage theft is rife at universities, but do the managers know it? | Overland literary journal


Wage theft is rife at
universities, but do the
managers know it?
By Yaegan Doran


Wage theft is rife at universities in Australia. This is the conclusion of a report
released last week by the University of Sydney Casuals Network in conjunction
with the Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The
report audited the actual hours worked by nineteen casuals across seven
schools at the University of Sydney, compared to the hours for which they were
paid. It showed that 84 per cent of participants were underpaid in the rst six
weeks of semester at an average of $2,521 per person, with one worker being
underpaid $11,469 during this period. These workers were contracted for on
average 1.4 days a week but worked close to another day a week (6.6 hours)
without pay.
A spokesperson for the University of Sydney replied in typically nonplussed
fashion: ‘Beyond this report, we are not currently aware of any other data or
evidence to suggest our academic staff are frequently working hours beyond
what they are contracted to do.’ As a co-author of the report and a casual myself,
this is a frustrating but unsurprising response. After nine years working on
casual or xed-term contracts at universities, I have become used to high-level
managers who avoid acknowledging the systematic overwork and
underpayment of their staff.
However, this does raise the question of whether or not managers do in fact
know their policies lead to such overwork and underpayment.
The evidence suggests they do. In March this year, the NTEU made a submission
to the Senate Inquiry into underpayment in the Australian economy. It detailed a
number of speci c cases of wage theft at Australian universities and quoted a
2019 survey which found that 64 per cent of casuals in Australia reported they
were underpaid for their work. In response, the Australian Higher Education
Industrial Association, the employer body representing most of the public
universities in Australia, stated that the NTEU had ‘provid(ed) no data about
alleged underpayments’, while University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael
Spence simply said: ‘The University does not agree with the written submissions
provided by the NTEU … that employees are subject to “large-scale wage theft”.’
These responses re ect an ongoing pattern. In June, the University of Sydney
Casuals Network produced another report surveying 159 casual staff within the
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at the University. This survey found
that 82 per cent of casuals reported performing unpaid work in semester 1, at
an average of 50 unpaid hours over the semester. When approached by the
student newspaper Honi Soit, the University of Sydney declined to comment.
A similar lack of acknowledgement occurs at more local levels. In August 2019,
a group of NTEU members in FASS at the University of Sydney released a
detailed report on the workloads of academic staff in the Faculty, based on a
survey of approximately a third of its staff. It found that the Faculty’s workload
policies severely undercounted how long it takes to complete core tasks, and
that 72 per cent of staff felt they were not given enough time to do their work. A
month later, they issued another report showing that these results were
remarkably similar to other studies across Australia and that academics had to
routinely work around 50 hours per week to do their job – well above the 37.5
hours considered ‘full time’. A year after these reports were released, the group
has yet to receive a formal response from the Dean of the Faculty or any other
University manager.
As these instances illustrate, when evidence arises of systematic underpayment
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