Fair Work Ombudsman takes UniMelb to court over underpayment, coercion

The University of Melbourne allegedly attempted to coerce two casual academics to prevent them from being paid in full.

The University of Melbourne faced the Federal Court today as the Fair Work Ombudsman seeks penalties from the institution for two breaches of the Fair Work Act. 

The breaches allegedly occurred when the University threatened two employees to deter them from claiming for work outside contracted hours. The regulator also alleges that the University took adverse action against one of the employees by refusing to give her further teaching work after she made a complaint.

Under the Fair Work Act (2009), it is unlawful for employers to take adverse action against people for exercising their workplace rights or attempt to coerce them to not access workplace rights. The maximum penalty for a breach of these laws is $66,600. Along with penalties, the Ombudsman is seeking for the University to compensate the two employees.

Underlying the breaches is the institutionalisation of casualisation, with both academics affected having been employed in a series of short term casual contracts. These contracts stipulated a set number of ‘anticipated hours’ each week. The coercion allegedly occurred after the academics attempted to claim for hours they had worked beyond the anticipated hours.

A media release from the Fair Work Ombudsman alleges that one of the academics was told by her supervisor words to the effect of “if you claim outside your contracted hours, don’t expect work next year”.

This coercion prevented the two employees from accessing the workplace right to be paid for the extra hours they worked. 

The University of Melbourne is also being investigated by the Ombudsman for underpayment of its casual employees.

The Ombudsman, Sandra Parker, placed the breaches in the context of broader problems with the treatment of casual academics in the tertiary education sector.

“We are currently investigating a range of underpayment issues in the universities sector, including failures to pay casual academics for all hours worked,” she said.

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