Australian union rebuffs university bid to ‘simplify’ casual pay

As underpayment claims embroil at least half the sector, Griffith’s proposed circuit breaker provokes more discord

December 6, 2022
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A Queensland university wants to change how it pays its casual academics to avoid future underpayments, but the academic union says the institution is trying to “codify wage theft”.

Griffith University proposes to abolish “wrapped-up rates” and instead pay casuals by the hour, as part of a new enterprise agreement. Wrapped-up rates build remuneration for all teaching activities – preparing and delivering classes, marking assignments, answering students’ questions after class and so on – into single hourly sums.

But wrapped-up rates only apply to four types of teaching: lectures, tutorials, clinics and musical accompaniment. For roughly 100 other categories of teaching, Griffith remunerates staff for the hours worked.

Vice-chancellor Carolyn Evans said lectures and tutorials were no longer the dominant forms of delivery, consuming only about one-third of casual teaching hours. Singling them out in this way led to confusion and arguments about the difference between tutorials and seminars.

“We’re just saying, why don’t we do what every other industry does with sessional workers, which is pay them by the hour? It really shouldn’t be seen as a radical proposal. It decreases the likelihood of inadvertent pay miscalculations because the system is so complex at the moment,” she said.

The university proposes paying sessional staff pro rata hourly rates based on associate lecturers’ salaries, plus a 25 per cent loading for casual employment. Casuals who teach postgraduate students would attract rates based on lecturers’ salaries.

The amount of time allocated for activities such as lesson preparation and marking would be negotiated at the school or department level, with reviews available if staff considered the allocations unreasonable.

But the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said there was no mention of the negotiation process or review rights in the proposed enterprise agreement. General secretary Damien Cahill said individual staff would inevitably find themselves haggling with supervisors over time limits for activities outside the classroom.

“This is going to lead to even more underpayment than occurs now,” Dr Cahill said. “In the context of a highly unequal power dynamic, this is a recipe for opening the floodgates to wage theft.”

NTEU Queensland secretary Michael McNally dismissed the idea of multiple forms of teaching as a “furphy”, blaming universities for the complexity of casual pay. “There are lectures, there are tutorials, there are workshops and there are labs – everything pretty much falls under one or other of those categories. The universities have tried to muddy the waters by calling tutorials ‘workshops’.”

Roughly half of Australian universities have been investigated internally or externally for underpaying their casuals for years, with some institutions now repaying millions of dollars. The University of Melbourne last month vowed to pay back A$22 million (£12 million) to 1,500 employees, on top of some A$10 million it had already expended.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has nominated universities one of its “strategic priorities” this year – alongside fast-food outlets, farms and contract cleaners – because of the “allegations of systemic underpayment”.

Professor Evans said Griffith’s proposal was not aimed at saving money and the sessional teaching budget had been increased sightly to cover a pay boost for casuals with postgraduate students. She said other universities would be “looking at this with interest” as the sector sought a circuit breaker for the underpayment problem.

The proposal allows casuals to divvy up teaching-related work among themselves and claim immediate payment for lecture or tutorial preparation rather than waiting until they have delivered the classes, she said.

Mr McNally said the union would be amenable to considering Griffith’s proposal if it documented the process more clearly in the workplace agreement. “The enterprise agreement is what we can enforce. Management intentions and commitments and statements and policies and all that sort of stuff – we can’t make them do any of that.”

Griffith said it already had “frameworks” at the school and academic group level for determining reasonable time allocations for teaching activities. “This won’t change, and staff won’t generally have to negotiate at an individual level,” a spokesman said. He said the university’s time-recording procedure for casuals included mechanisms for staff to raise concerns about the allocations, and the proposed enterprise agreement included a dispute avoidance and settlement provision.

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