Monash accused of ‘rewriting rules’ in underpayments row

University says attempts to retrospectively change a years-old agreement are about ‘resolving ambiguities’ around how staff are paid for student consultations

April 18, 2023
Monash University
Monash University

Australia’s biggest university has rejected a union claim that it is trying to rewrite a 2019 enterprise agreement in a ploy to avoid a A$10 million (£5.4 million) unpaid wages bill.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) says Monash University has been routinely underpaying casual academics for years by forcing them to provide an hour of unpaid student consultations for each tutorial they teach.

Branch president Ben Eltham said that after numerous attempts to convince Monash to change the practice, the union had sued the institution for “wage theft” in the Federal Court. The university had responded by launching proceedings in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to retrospectively vary the enterprise agreement.

Monash says it simply wants to “resolve an ambiguity” in the agreement’s wording which allows for different interpretations about how staff should be paid for student consultations. It says it asked the FWC to adjudicate, as per the “agreed disputes procedure” in the enterprise agreement.

The university says that the union tried a similar tactic in 2016, when it applied to the FWC to vary an earlier enterprise agreement in an attempt to resolve ambiguity about payments for marking. But instead of following due process this time around, the union had gone to the Federal Court.

The row marks a particularly combative episode in a wave of underpayment scandals involving some 20 universities. In a February report, the union estimated that at least A$83 million had been illegally withheld – a figure rapidly revised upwards to A$108 million, following disclosure that two universities owed more than previously thought.

National NTEU president Alison Barnes told Nine Media that underpayment was “systemic” in Australian universities and that the eventual repayments would probably run to hundreds of millions of dollars. The Fair Work Ombudsman and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency have both put universities on notice over the issue.

Monash has been named among the worst offenders, having already repaid about A$9 million. The university says the repayments occurred after a review it had initiated uncovered “timesheet submission errors and inconsistent descriptions of teaching activities”.

In a statement posted on its website, Monash said paying staff correctly was a big priority. “We have a well-established process for assessing and responding to any concerns raised by staff about pay accuracy.” In the latest dispute it was “simply complying with the processes in our enterprise agreement and the Fair Work Act”.

Monash also disputes the A$10 million figure, saying the union calculated it by extrapolating a “small number” of individual claims outlined in Federal Court documents “and speculating that thousands of other staff are affected in the same way”.

The NTEU says Monash is “going to extraordinary legal lengths” to avoid paying staff their dues. Dr Eltham said that the case had the potential to set a “very serious precedent” in Australian industrial law “If employers can respond to wage theft claims by rewriting their enterprise agreements after the fact, this could hand bosses a weapon to kill off underpayment claims across the whole economy,” he tweeted.

The Federal Court has suspended the NTEU’s claim pending the outcome of FWC hearings scheduled for mid-May.

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