Fair Work Ombudsman sues UniMelb for underpayment and coercion
The University of Melbourne faced Federal Court today as the Fair Work Ombudsman seeks sanctions against the institution for two breaches of the Fair Work Act.
The violations allegedly took place when the University threatened two employees to dissuade them from demanding work outside contractual hours. The regulator also alleges that the University took adverse action against one of the employees by refusing to give her other teaching duties after she filed a complaint.
Under the Fair Work Act (2009), it is illegal for employers to take adverse action against people for exercising their labor rights or to attempt to coerce them into denying them access to labor rights. The maximum penalty for a violation of these laws is $66,600. In addition to the penalties, the Québec Ombudsman asked the University to compensate the two employees.
The institutionalization of casualization underpins these violations, with the two academics involved having been employed on a series of casual short-term contracts. These contracts stipulated a fixed number of “advance hours” each week. The coercion allegedly took place after academics tried to claim working hours beyond the scheduled hours.
A press release from the Fair Work Ombudsman alleges that one of the academics was told by her supervisor words to the effect of “if you claim outside your contractual hours, do not expect to work the year next”.
This coercion prevented the two employees from accessing the right to work to be paid for the overtime hours they worked.
The University of Melbourne is also under investigation by the ombudsman for underpaying its casual workers.
Ombudsman Sandra Parker placed the violations in the context of broader issues surrounding the treatment of casual scholars in the higher education sector.
“We are currently investigating a range of underpayment issues in the academic sector, including non-payment of casual academics for all hours worked,” she said.
“Employers should put in place proactive measures to ensure they comply with labor laws. If employers become aware that their employees may be underpaid, the only appropriate response is to verify that they are paying their employees correctly and promptly rectify any compliance issues discovered.