“If you’re not sure, pay more”: another Australian university under fire for wage theft
by GRACE JOHNSON
In the latest case of higher education wage theft, Australian Catholic University (ACU) has admitted to underpaying 1100 staff $3.6 million.
The revelation means that there are now more than 101,730 university staff that have suffered $170.3 million in wage theft nationwide in recent years.
The university’s admission has only provided further evidence that wage theft is endemic in higher education, according to Dr Alison Barnes, President of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
“There’s barely a university in Australia which hasn’t been caught out stealing workers’ wages,” she said.
“Wage theft is the symptom and insecure work is the disease.”
“It’s extremely disappointing but not surprising that casual staff have once again been the victims of this egregious conduct.”
ACU has committed to full backpay with interest as soon as possible over the underpayments, which happened between 2016 and 2023, but allegedly knew there was a problem as early as 2022.
NTEU ACU Branch President Dr Leah Kaufmann said she was disappointed that the NTEU was not consulted earlier.
“This is extremely serious systemic wage underpayment or an estimated $3.6 million to 1100 sessional staff,” she said.
However, ACU’s self-reporting has been welcomed.
“Unlike some other universities, ACU management has reported itself, apologised, committed to full back payments within 28 days, and will be providing access to support for staff identified as the victims of underpayment,” continued Dr Kaufmann.
“The NTEU also welcomes ACU’s commitment to pay every sessional employee at the highest rate until they can be confident in their payment systems ensuring staff are paid at the appropriate rate.”
“This should be a lesson to all universities: if you’re not sure, pay more.”
Wage theft is endemic in tertiary institution
There have been growing examples of wage theft in Australia tertiary education.
The University of Sydney admitted to wrongdoing in September 2021, after Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott sent an all-staff email admitting to wage theft between 2014 and 2020. The review found a staggering $12.75 million of wages had not been paid, affecting mostly casual professional employees, who already suffer from insecure work and inadequate pay rates.
In September last year, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) launched legal action against UNSW, accusing the university of “serious contraventions” of the Fair Work Act between 2017 and 2022. Legal proceedings involved the university’s poor bookkeeping, pay slips, and a pattern of late wage payments.
Part of the problem is the serial casualisation of university staff.
“Underpayments and aggressive casualisation are baked into universities’ business models,” said Dr Barnes.
The Australian Universities Accord, a government initiative to reform Australia’s higher education system, has called on universities to become “exemplary employers”.
“This is yet another example of how desperately we need to realise that goal,” emphasised Dr Barnes.
“With more than $170 million in underpayments affecting more than 100,000 staff, we need major reforms tackling insecure work and governance if we’re to even make unis acceptable, let alone exemplary employers.”