University of Melbourne faces legal action over alleged intimidation of employees

Case involves 'unlawful threats' concerning payment claims

University of Melbourne faces legal action over alleged intimidation of employees

The University of Melbourne faces legal action for allegedly intimidating and taking adverse action against two casual academics to prevent them from claiming payments, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) reported in a media release.

The FWO alleged that the university threatened not to rehire two academics to coerce them not to exercise their workplace right to claim payments for their extra work, with their supervisor stating, “if you claim outside your contracted hours, don’t expect work next year.”

Unlawful threats to employees

Based on the documents filed in the Federal Court, the FWO argued that the university took unfavourable actions against one of the academics when it chose not to offer her any more work after the academic tried to claim payment for extra work and made several complaints and inquiries in the university.

“The academics were engaged on contracts which set out the number of ‘anticipated hours’ per subject,” the agency said in a media release.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman alleges that the threat was made because the academics complained about being required to work more hours than the anticipated hours in their contracts and to prevent them from exercising a workplace right to be paid for the extra hours,” it added.

Moreover, according to the FWO, during the alleged occurrence of adverse action and coercion breach, the University of Melbourne had employed the two affected academics on a short-term casual teaching term, in at least 2016 and 2017, respectively, in its Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

The university’s allegedly first adverse action breach and coercion happened when the supervisor reportedly threatened not to re-employ the academic during a video conference meeting in August 2020, the agency said.

Then, the second suspected breach occurred around February 2021 when the supervisor chose not to offer one of the two affected academics more casual teaching contracts.

“It is alleged that the decision was made after the academic asked to be paid for several hours of work she had performed that exceeded the “anticipated hours” in her contract for Summer Semester 2021, and following a number of complaints and inquiries made by the employee to the University since July 2020,” FWO said.

“It is alleged that the University of Melbourne has subsequently not offered that academic any further teaching work,” it added.

Meanwhile, the other academic is still employed in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, according to FWO.

Additionally, the agency said it is conducting a separate investigation concerning the alleged underpayment of casual academic employees in the university.

Following the university’s alleged contraventions of the Fair Work Act, the FWO seeks a maximum penalty per breach of $66,600.

“In addition to penalties, the regulator is also seeking a court order for the University to pay compensation to the two academics for loss arising from the contraventions,” FWO said.

FWO’s warning to employers

In June, the FWO announced that addressing non-compliance issues in the education sector, especially in universities, became one of its “top compliance and enforcement priorities.”

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said that adverse action and coercion significantly demoralize workplace laws and the ability of workers to exercise their lawful rights. Hence, according to Parker, contraventions against workers’ rights are “taken seriously” by the FWO.

“Employers should have proactive measures in place to ensure they are meeting workplace laws,” Parker said.

“If employers become aware of concerns their employees may be being underpaid, the only appropriate response is to check that they are paying their employees correctly and promptly rectify any compliance issues discovered,” she added.

The FWO reminded employers that under the Fair Work Act, it is illegal for an employer to take unfavourable action against a person simply because the individual exercises a workplace right.

“It is also unlawful for a person to take or threaten to take any action against another person with the intent to coerce them [not to] exercise a workplace right,” the agency said.

The date for directions hearing in the Federal Court in Melbourne regarding the case of the University of Melbourne has yet to be listed.

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