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VC and FASS Dean dodge wage theft questions at casuals meeting

Casuals raise concerns about wage theft at the University of Sydney

The NTEU and Casuals Network today organised a public meeting to discuss casualisation at the University of Sydney with Interim Vice-Chancellor Stephen Garton and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Annamarie Jagose.

Casuals raised concerns surrounding wage theft and unfair working conditions in a unique public forum, with students and permanent staff attending in solidarity with casual staff members.

The meeting was chaired by casual academic Robert Boncardo and featured a number of student and staff questioners from a variety of faculties. 

The question of wage theft

The central question was whether or not the University of Sydney has committed any substantive wage theft. The definition of wage theft was highly contested as Jagose and Garton deflected questions and evidence of widespread underpayment.

Vice-Chancellor Garton claimed the arguments that have been made previously are “philosophical” rather than “legal”. He argued that “wage theft”, as per the definition in the Enterprise Agreement, had not been committed.

Professor Jagose claimed what has occurred cannot, definitionally, be considered wage theft. She also cautioned against the nonspecific use of ‘wage theft’. In her view, it has been used as a catch-all term to describe a variety of payment issues within the institution. 

This position was readily countered by almost all questioners at the event. A casual research assistant within the Faculty of Medicine and Health drew particular attention to the dichotomy between casual staff paid for hours worked and those paid on a piece rate, pointing out the lack of consistency between those in teaching positions and research positions.

Questions arose about the similarities between the legal case confronting the University of Melbourne, which has pledged $16 million as recompense for wage theft. Garton maintained that this case was distinct from that concerning the University of Sydney, as Melbourne demonstrably did not meet the standards outlined in their Enterprise Agreement. This stance was met with criticism, with a casual noting that the only difference is that the University of Melbourne pays per 3000 words for marking, and the University of Sydney pays per 4500 words.

Desktop audits and ‘evidence-based’ conversations

In May 2021, The Casuals Network and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) released ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ report, revealing 90% of participants performed unpaid work during Semester 2, 2020.

Vice-Chancellor Garton refuted the report by critiquing the sample size and referencing the desktop audit conducted by University administration. 

The desktop audit of 100 timesheets found little casual underpayment, however casuals argued that the audit was flawed as timesheets do not allow staff to log hours worked in excess of contract.

Management’s proposed solutions

Throughout the hour-long meeting, Jagose and Garton claimed they take allegations of wage theft seriously.

Garton blamed a lack of government economic support, citing a “broken model propped up by international students.” However, in 2020, the University saw a surplus of over $106.6 million and increased international student revenue

The Vice-Chancellor argued that the workforce needed to diversify and focus more on teaching. He referenced different models in the UK and USA which employ significant numbers of teaching-only staff members. 

Casual conversions to permanent staff positions

Emeritus Professor Linda Connor highlighted the difficulty of converting casual staff members into ongoing roles, particularly in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Jagose claims she was shocked to hear this.

“I look at the four categories [for refusal of conversion], and make a determination as to what is appropriate,” said Jagose. 

After the meeting, students confronted Garton and Jagose outside Taste Cafe, where the pair continued to evade questions, leaving as students chanted “1, 2, 3, fuck the VC!”

Photo: Georgia Carr
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