Weeks into the semester, as Australian universities closed due to the pandemic, a group of precarious workers from Monash University came together to form the Monash Casuals Network (MCN). Composed of occasional academic and professional staff, the MCN responds to the challenges of organizing precarious workers and attempts to strengthen their representation within the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
At the start of the pandemic, the university laid off thousands of term and casual workers. This meant that the remaining staff faced increasing pressure to work more for less pay. MCN has provided a forum for casuals – like us – from across the university to report on industrial issues. By discussing the conditions we faced together, we understood how prevalent salary theft is in higher education.
Eighteen months later, we fought our first battle, between MCN and Monash University, over salary theft – and MCN won. On September 23 of this year, Monash University confessed to underpaying educators to the tune of $ 8.6 million.
Australian universities today rely heavily on casual workers. Monash University has one of the highest casualization rates, with around 70 percent of the total workforce on contracts that place no obligation on employers to guarantee safe work. The sector depends on these highly skilled but poorly paid workers. It draws on their expertise and ability to teach at the tertiary level while compensating for them with low salaries and poor conditions. University principals often assume that precarious workers do not want to organize and do not want to fight for their rights. The MCN has proven this assumption to be wrong.
It is not only precariousness that is endemic in Australian universities, but also salary theft, affecting the casuals who teach at these institutions. Over the past twelve months, salary theft scandals exposing tens of millions of dollars in embezzled revenue have rocked universities across the country.
The University of Melbourne recently reimbursed $ 9.5 million to 1,500 casual academic staff. The University of Sydney has admitted to underpaying staff by $ 13 million, and the University of New South Wales is looking at a potential $ 36 million in unpaid salaries identified by an independent audit. Monash University is the latest in a string of salary theft cases.
As part of the Cross-School Coalition (CSC) Against Salary Theft, the MCN has helped bring together dozens of school workers across the university to collect evidence of salary theft in the form of th -mails, timesheets, unit guides and written testimonials. This was important because salary theft can take many forms and be difficult to detect. It could be unpaid overtime, unpaid evaluation notes, unpaid meetings, or unpaid preparation time. In our case, Monash covered up the salary theft by misclassifying the tasks for which casuals were paid.
For example, supervisors can ask staff to record courses and tutorials as âother required activityâ on our timesheets. In some cases, this has allowed the university to send staff members home with only a third of the salary they were owed. Let’s take the example of a one-hour tutorial, with a standard preparation time of two hours. If it were recorded as an “other required activity”, the teacher would only earn $ 45 at home, leaving the preparation time unpaid. In some cases, this left guardians only a third of the salary to which they should have been entitled.
CMN’s data collection suggested that this practice was not a mistake but was part of the employment protocol. Many workers told us that they did not know that someone at the university was being paid at the tutoring rate and did not know that the work they were doing constituted tutoring.
An August 2020 NTEU survey of members of Australian universities asked staff to report on working conditions, including wage theft. A staggering 63 percent of those polled reported false salary thefts at more than a dozen Monash University schools, ranging from paramedical medicine to history, economics and engineering.
This analysis formed the basis of our salary theft campaign and allowed us to identify the hot spots of salary theft in the university. The networks that we have developed in the MCN have helped us to organize working meetings in these schools. Since we were working as volunteer activists within the union, with limited resources, we decided to focus our efforts. Our goal was to organize a dozen people from each of the two or three schools who were ready to catalog and report – in detail – the salary theft they were facing. We hoped that would create a snowball effect.
At the workplace meetings, we gave a presentation on the Monash University Company Bargaining Agreement (EBA) which sets out the salary and terms. We also explained the nature of salary theft and our data collection procedures. Once organized, these schools joined the Interschool Coalition Against Salary Theft, which met weekly to track data collection and liaise with MCN, NTEU Monash branch and union staff on what was happening. necessary to initiate industrial action.
At these meetings, many casual workers shared poignant stories. Academics at the School of Civil Engineering – disproportionately drawn from vulnerable migrant communities – shared some of the worst stories, explaining how their precariousness is exacerbated by their visa status. In their school, class classification errors were common and preparation time was unpaid. The result was that management effectively tied up two-thirds of their salary.
A teacher at this school reported that a superior forced them to prepare and give a lecture for zero pay. Another immigrant worker said that when he raised concerns about endemic exploitative practices at the school, he was subsequently subjected to intimidation over his visa status.
Supervisors at the school attempted to excuse these practices, claiming that these workers were not tutors but âpractical class assistants,â and therefore were not allowed to pay for the preparation. This categorization of employees does not exist in the EBA – it was actually invented to cover underpayment. This suggests that teachers in the Department of Civil Engineering should teach without preparation. The union presented evidence exposing the cynicism of this claim, including role descriptions requiring the “practical class assistants” of the civil engineering school to have “mastered the contents of the unit”.
While the meetings we organized often focused on the challenges faced by precarious university workers, it was about building solidarity and regaining a sense of dignity in our work. Most of the employees involved in the action agreed that this was only partially about recovering stolen wages – we also wanted to prevent this from happening to someone else in the future. It brought together staff from a variety of backgrounds, including new mothers, young immigrants and low-income doctoral students.
After months of organizing through late 2020 and early 2021, we had gathered enough data from CSC members to present a strong case to the union for industrial action. Up to this point, the NTEU has provided minimal support to the MCN, which has done most of the legwork for this campaign. But once we collected more than enough data, the NTEU branch filed a salary theft complaint with the university administration, ultimately forcing Monash’s hand.
The end result was a victory for workers and students – and for the public, who own our universities. Salary theft at Australian universities is not just the theft of insecure staff in a struggling industry. It is the theft of students whose quality of education is impaired by the poor pay of educators, and it is the theft of the Australian public missing out on the benefits of flourishing universities.
Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner and the leadership of Monash University have yet to recognize the impact of salary theft on the quality of education provided by the university. Monash also failed to recognize the material impact on the lives of precarious and casual academic staff who, according to the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia survey, are at much greater risk of food and housing insecurity than our counterparts. fixed term.
Indeed, the renaming of teaching as an âother required activityâ speaks to the cynical understanding of university leaders of the institutions in which they work and their role within them. As the corporatization of Australian universities has accelerated, their role as providers of education has been marginalized.
This victory is important for the entire industry and for many of the lowest paid and hardest working teachers. It is a contribution to the fight for workers’ rights in an increasingly precarious sector. The time we spend teaching is what makes universities valuable – we deserve secure jobs and pay for the value we create.