RMIT in ‘wage theft’ dispute over serial underpayment of casual staff

RMIT in ‘wage theft’ dispute over serial underpayment of casual staff

08/26/2021

The tertiary education union is pursuing RMIT University over the serial underpayment of academic staff it claims has gone on for almost a decade, in a “wage theft” claim that could cost the university millions of dollars in back pay.

Ten of RMIT’s schools have been implicated in the dispute, which centres on casual staff being underpaid between $10 and $20 an hour when marking student assignments and exams, in a multitude of individual cases that stretch back to 2014.

RMIT is accused of underpaying staff.Credit:Erin Jonasson

The alleged underpayment of casual academic staff has been a running sore in the Victorian university sector, with institutions including the University of Melbourne and La Trobe also caught up in underpayment claims and investigations in recent months.

The Tertiary Education Union alleges RMIT has engaged in “significant and sustained wage theft in respect to casual academic staff, in breach of the enterprise agreement 2018 and 2014”.

The agreement states casual staff must be paid a 25 per cent loading on top of permanent and fixed contract pay rates “where the exercise of academic judgment is required” in marking assessments.

The Age has seen several pay claim forms in which casual staff were paid at the “standard marking rate”, which is $10 to $20 an hour less than the “academic judgment” rate the agreement requires.

Emails to staff also indicate university management has been aware in some cases of the correct hourly rate for casuals since at least 2016.

A handful of casual staff have successfully claimed back pay, in examples the union argues is an admission by RMIT that it had paid the wrong rates.

The National Tertiary Education Union has issued RMIT University an ultimatum ahead of a meeting over the dispute early next week: pay back the difference between the standard rate and the higher rate for every current and former casual employee who has been underpaid and apologise to casual staff or face potential “prosecution for breaches of the agreement”.

Sarah Roberts, assistant secretary of the union’s Victorian division, said there were many casual academic staff members who would have been underpaid since 2014. The union does not yet have a figure, but estimates it could be well above $15 million.

In a statement, an RMIT spokesperson said the university takes its obligations under its enterprise agreements very seriously and is committed to ensuring that employees receive their full entitlements.

“If ever RMIT is provided with evidence to suggest that any employee may not have been correctly paid, it will investigate the matter,” the spokesperson said.

“In instances when an error may have inadvertently occurred, RMIT would of course rectify the error.”

RMIT University has a highly casualised workforce: 5688 people out of a total staff of 9510 were listed as fixed term and casual in its 2020 annual report. The university also posted a deficit of $55.93 million last year, the largest deficit of any Victorian university.

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