Melbourne University pursued over alleged coercion of casual academics

Key points

  • Fair Work Ombudsman alleges Melbourne University coerced casual staff against seeking pay for the extra hours they had worked.
  • It is the first time the ombudsman has taken legal action against a university.
  • It’s alleged casuals were told “don’t expect work next year” after seeking pay.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched a landmark legal case against the state’s wealthiest university, over what it says was its coercion and punishment of two casual academics who had sought to be paid for the extra hours they had worked.

In the first case of its kind after years of systemic underpayment of casual university staff, the ombudsman alleges in court documents that Melbourne University, one of Australia’s richest universities, “threatened not to re-employ the two academics with the intent to coerce them to not exercise their workplace right to claim payment for the extra work”.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched legal action against Melbourne University.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The university agreed in 2020 to pay back millions in wages owed to workers. Last year, Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell apologised over the running issue and pledged to fix it.

The university posted a net surplus of $584 million for 2021.

In documents filed in the Federal Court on Wednesday, the ombudsman alleges the academics’ supervisor said words to the effect of, “if you claim outside your contracted hours, don’t expect work next year”.

The watchdog alleges two breaches of the Fair Work Act and is seeking penalties against the university. The maximum penalty per breach is $66,600.

It is also seeking a court order for the university to pay compensation to the two academics for their losses.

The ombudsman’s statement of claim says that Renee Tsongas began working in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2017 and Andrew Slyfield began there in 2015 on short-term casual contracts as lecturers, tutors, and academic support staff in the sports science field.

Fair Work alleges Tsongas encountered problems while working during a winter intensive subject in July 2020. She hadn’t yet received a written contract for the work she’d started, but was offered subjects for the approaching second semester, which would start on August 3. She repeatedly asked for contracts for both periods, so she could get paid and make plans.

On August 1, she emailed the university’s People and Culture department saying she was having issues with her supervisor and her contracts. She received a contract for the winter intensive period on August 3, but was told the university was cutting 450 jobs and her second semester contract was “in the pipeline”.

Fair Work alleges Tsongas’ supervisor said words to the effect of, “if you claim outside your contracted hours, don’t expect work next year”.

The Fair Work Ombudsman alleges the staff were threatened because they complained about needing to work more than the anticipated hours in their contracts. It also claims their supervisor prevented them from claiming extra hours.

In January 2021, Tsongas again submitted a time cardthat included extra hours worked. But she was allegedly told she’d only be paid for hours agreed in her contract, with an initial reference to “anticipated hours” deleted. She was allegedly told to resubmit her time card.

In an email exchange to a professor outlined in court documents,a supervisor allegedly called Tsongas a “self-entitled Y-genner”.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the university’s conduct undermined fundamental employee rights.

“We treat allegations of employers taking action to stop or prevent employees from claiming their lawful entitlements very seriously. Adverse action and coercion directly undermine workplace laws and the ability of employees to exercise their lawful rights,” Parker said.

A University of Melbourne spokesperson said the university was committed to complying with all of its obligations to staff under the enterprise agreement and “highly values” all its employees, including casual staff and “the significant contribution they make”.

The university is looking over the allegations and will respond through relevant court processes.

The spokesperson said the university was working to identify any practices that were inconsistent with their obligations and doing “everything we can” to remediate and “fully comply”.

The legal action comes while a separate ombudsman’s investigation is underway into alleged underpayments of casual academics by the University of Melbourne.

National Tertiary Education Union branch president Annette Herrera said it was shocking and that investigations were continuing “school by school, faculty by faculty”.

“How many more inquiries do we have to do to make this change?”

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