FWO files complaint against University of Melbourne

'False or misleading records' alleged to involve work hours of 14 academics

FWO files complaint against University of Melbourne

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has filed a complaint against The University of Melbourne, alleging that it underpaid temporary employees in the Faculty of Arts and kept false or misleading documents.

According to the federal court charges, the university violated labour standards by failing to pay 14 casual academics for all hours of marking work at the hourly rates required by its enterprise agreements between February 2017 and December 2019.

Instead, the university reportedly paid the said staff based on “benchmarks,” which varied depending on the school in the faculty, and in some cases, stated payment for marking at a rate based on “4,000 words per hour” and at one school on “one hour per student.”

HRD previously reported about the university’s prior charges, where the FWO alleged that it was intimidating and taking adverse action against two casual academics to prevent them from claiming payments. In that case, the university allegedly threatened not to rehire two academics to coerce them not to exercise their workplace right to claim payments for their extra work.

HRIS benchmarks

In the present lawsuit, the staff was reportedly required to record their hours worked into the university's human resources information system (HRIS) based on “benchmarks” rather than total hours spent.

As such, the FWO argues that the university failed to record all hours worked by casual academics and that it “produced and stored documents known to some faculty management to be incorrect or misleading.”

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the court case showed why the university sector was one of the regulator's “top priorities.”

“Allegations of universities underpaying their employees by systematically failing to follow their own enterprise agreements are of great concern. It is important that where we find alleged serious contraventions, we take employers to court and seek penalties to deter non-compliance,” Parker said.

The FWO said the university “expressly, tacitly or impliedly authorised” the violations because of a “corporate culture” involving the use of marking benchmarks, adding that senior faculty leaders were “aware” of the benchmarking procedures, which resulted in staff not getting compensated for all time spent marking.

“Universities, like all employers, should have proactive measures in place to ensure they are meeting workplace laws and paying employees correctly for all hours worked. If employers become aware of concerns their employees may be being underpaid, they must promptly seek advice and rectify any compliance issues discovered,” Parker said.

Meanwhile, a landmark FWO case recovered back payments, which recorded an “all-time high” after getting $532 million for 384,805 underpaid workers.

The University of Melbourne academics were employed on the Parkville campus. Three professors possessed a Ph.D. for at least some of their time on the job, which qualified them for higher hourly rates under the enterprise agreements. At least 12 employees have been completely paid back.

In addition to fines of up to $630,000 per breach for the alleged major violations, The University of Melbourne risks penalties of up to $63,000 per breach for the other claims. A date for a directions hearing in Melbourne's Federal Court has yet to be set.

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