More than a dozen former student residential assistants (RA) at the University of Canberra are working with a law firm to investigate and sue UniLodge, alongside partner universities, for systemic wage underpayment and exploitation.
These developments follow last week’s revelations of allegations from concerned students and RAs at the Regiment Building. Among these were accusations that RAs at the Regiment Building were paid up to $250 a month and were essentially performing unpaid labour. In comparison, counterparts at Sydney University Village (SUV) and residential colleges earn much more than those at UniLodge-managed premises such as Regiment or Abercrombie.
It is understood that Canberra-based law firm Adero Law is expected to pursue the case against UniLodge and associated universities, including USyd, for wage theft over the past six years. USyd is confirmed to be among the many institutions which are involved in the impending case. Although UniLodge manages these residences, it is better described as a “white label operator” whereby ownership and landlord obligations remain vested in universities such as Sydney.
“There is a systemic pattern that may mean that certain group members being underpaid per shift that work up to $300 per shift, which is likely to result in one of the largest underpayments within the higher education sector,” said Rahul Bedi, a senior associate at Adero Law, in a statement to Honi.
“These kinds of class actions are deeply concerning when a university seeks to wash its hand entirely of systemic exploitation in their own campus,” Bedi said.
At Regiment and SUV, RAs are expected to be on-call at all times throughout the day, organise social events, be the first port of contact for residents and are trained to attend to emergency situations such as fires or assaults.
One key contention in the suit is whether student RAs could be treated as on-call night-time operators, which would make them eligible for the Higher Education Award instead of UniLodge’s classification of these students under less generous entitlements under the Hospitality Award.
At least three former Canberra students, Taylor Meers, Daniel Gock and Gabrielle Magyray are expected to lead the proceedings as claimants.
The complaints are significant given that UniLodge presides over a vast portfolio comprising over 105 residences which house some 31,000 students. The conglomerate stands as one of Australia and New Zealand’s largest managers of Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA).
In 2020, despite the impact of COVID-19, UniLodge’s financial statement posted significant earnings exceeding $23 million.
These allegations also parallel years-long patterns of endemic wage theft and institutional workplace exploitation at USyd. In September, it was revealed that the University admitted to underpaying staff — disproportionately targeting casual tutors — some $12.75 million.
Similarly, other major universities such as the University of Melbourne and Monash have been mired in their own wage theft controversies.
In its statement to Honi, USyd believed the roles of RAs at USyd-owned properties and Canberra were ‘different’ and that they ‘were not aware of any allegations about underpayment at any of our residential facilities operated by UniLodge’.
The payment of RAs, along with other concerns, were raised in a residential town hall meeting hosted by UniLodge and USyd staff in November.
In a statement, the SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins extended solidarity to students and argued that management and private accommodation providers were relying on “exploitative methods” to generate profits.
“Students and staff who perform unpaid and underpaid labour such as placements, residential assistants and casuals are the people who run the University and we can shut it down.”
Adero Law is calling for testimonies and expressions of interests from students who may be affected by these allegations as part of their investigation.
Note: This article was updated to include a statement from the University of Sydney.