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FASS dismisses wage theft evidence in internal investigation

Claims of wage theft were referred to as “a mistaken belief that casual academic staff are entitled to be paid for any time spent at their discretion and choice.”

Following an ‘internal investigation,’ the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), in an email to staff from Dean Annamarie Jagose, has dismissed evidence collated by the University of Sydney Casuals Network of systemic underpayment of casual staff.

In May this year, the Casuals Network released The Tip of the Iceberg report, a compilation of evidence from 29 casual staff members revealing that 90% of participants performed unpaid work during Semester 2, 2020. One participant reported unpaid wages amounting to $19,065. 

USyd NTEU Branch Committee Member Rob Boncardo told Honi that “the email that was sent out by the Dean didn’t teach us anything new about management’s attempts to get to the bottom of wage theft; in fact, it reinforced what we already know.” USyd NTEU Casuals Representative Dani Cotton also told Honi that “at a time where staff welfare should be at the forefront of their minds, this fits into a pattern of what can at best be described as disregard and at worst, outright aggression.”

According to the email obtained by Honi, the University confined the investigation to FASS “on the basis that the majority of respondents referred to in the Reports worked in FASS.” Chief Human Resources Officer Karen Haywood wrote that “the purpose of the investigation was to determine whether any work practices or arrangements were being adopted by management that could result in the underpayment to staff of their entitlements under the University of Sydney Enterprise Agreement 2018–2021 (EA).”

The two-part investigation included a ‘desktop review’ of over 150 documents, such as workload and marking guidelines, casual academic contracts, training and induction materials and staff communications. The second stage of the investigation followed up the desktop review’s results, confirming the findings through interviews with managers within FASS, including Heads of Schools, regarding the day-to-day conduct of managers. 

In both stages of the internal investigation, the University “found no evidence of practices within FASS that were directed to, or had the effect of, avoiding the University’s obligations to pay staff for all work required to be performed.”

Boncardo, who is one of the co-authors of the Tip of the Iceberg report, said that the University’s investigation “cannot be seen as rigorous.” Criticising the desktop audit, Boncardo said that it “cannot possibly capture the wage theft that’s going on because we can only put in the hours we’re contracted to do in our timesheets. If we put in the hours we really do, we will have our timesheet rejected.”

Additionally, Boncardo noted the shortcomings of the investigation’s second stage, saying: “What management have done is go to senior staff and ask if they have asked casuals to do work without payment. Who is going to incriminate themselves in response to that question?”

The University’s investigation referred extensively to the idea that “there was also no evidence that work practices were inconsistent with the EA.” The EA and its provisions, particularly the piece rate model, have been criticised as inadequate in upholding staff rights. The piece rate model specifies that casuals are to be paid per piece of work rather than an hourly rate, meaning that time spent preparing course materials, properly marking assignments, answering emails and other administrative tasks often fall out of the parameters specified by the EA.

The email dismissed the evidence of systemic wage theft as “a mistaken belief that casual academic staff are entitled to be paid for any time spent at their discretion and choice, rather than as required by the University and in accordance with Schedule 1 of the EA.”

“The University is not aware of any evidence that would indicate that the rate structure in Schedule 1 of the EA is no longer valid and it remains the University’s view that casual academics can reasonably complete their required work in the time allowed for in the EA rate.”

The email has sparked considerable outrage amongst casual staff at the University. Cotton described the email as “utterly outrageous, upsetting and insulting.” Additionally, a casual Economics tutor told Honi that the University’s investigation was “an insulting response to years of hard work by many casuals.”

“Putting aside the instability of working as a casual, there is no separate time paid for holding consultation hours, responding to [discussion board] questions or answering emails.” In the Tip of the Iceberg report, administrative work such as answering emails and setting up unit of study outlines comprised a significant proportion of unpaid work.

While the University’s investigation claimed that it did not enforce unfair working requirements on casual academics, the tutor also said that “The University and Faculty is well aware of the issues with the marking hours. There are ‘quotas’ for each hour of marking — generally ten responses per hour or six minutes each. That is woefully inadequate when tutors need to read extended responses, undergo the intellectual process of verifying it against course material and marking criteria, and provide detailed feedback that not only justifies the mark but also helps the student for future study.”

Citing a lack of further information and evidence of wage theft, the University found no basis for further action and has concluded the investigation. However, Boncardo noted that “management have at no point reached out to us for more information.”

With enterprise bargaining underway, casual academics have been fighting for better working conditions and pay rates as the expiration of the current EA approaches. 

Meanwhile, the University denied over 4000 casuals conversion to permanent employment in September this year. Many casuals continue to pursue back pay claims, which Boncardo says will “land on [management’s] desk very soon.” 

Boncardo is determined and optimistic about the future of staff’s fight for better working conditions and pay rates. “This is obviously not over for us.” 

“I believe we will win.”

Editorial Note: This article was updated at 5:25pm on October 7 2021 to reflect comment from Dani Cotton, USyd NTEU Casuals Representative.