Weeks into the semester, as universities around Australia closed due to the pandemic, a group of precarious workers from Monash University met to form the Monash Casuals Network (MCN). Made up of casual academic and professional staff, the MCN responds to the challenges of organizing precariously employed workers and attempts to build better representation for them within the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
At the beginning of the pandemic, the university laid off thousands of fixed-term and casual staff. This meant that remaining staff faced increasing pressure to work more for less pay. The MCN provided a forum for casuals — like us — from across the university to report on industrial issues. By discussing the conditions we faced together, we understood how widespread wage theft is within higher education.
Eighteen months later, we fought our first battle, between the MCN and Monash University, over wage theft — and the MCN won. On September 23 this year, Monash University confessed to underpaying educators to the tune of $8.6 million.
Australian universities today overwhelmingly rely on casual workers. Monash University has one of the highest rates of casualization, with approximately 70 percent of the total workforce on contracts that do not impose any obligation on employers to guarantee secure work. The sector is dependent on these highly skilled yet badly paid workers. It relies on their expertise and ability to teach at a tertiary level while compensating them with low pay packets and poor conditions. University managers often assume that precarious workers are unwilling to unionize and unwilling to fight for their rights. The MCN has proven this supposition untrue.
It’s not just casualization that’s endemic in Australian universities but wage theft, too, affecting casuals who teach at these institutions. In the last twelve months, wage theft scandals exposing tens of millions of dollars of misappropriated earnings have rocked universities around the country.
The University of Melbourne recently repaid $9.5 million to 1,500 casual academic staff. The University of Sydney has admitted to underpaying staff by $13 million, and the University of New South Wales is reviewing a potential $36 million in unpaid wages identified by an independent audit. Monash University’s is the latest in a string of wage theft cases.
As part of the Cross-School Coalition (CSC) against wage theft, the MCN helped to gather dozens of workers from schools across the university to collect proof of wage theft in the form of emails, time sheets, unit guides, and written testimonies. This was important because wage theft can take many forms and be hard to detect. It can involve unpaid overtime, unpaid assessment marking, unpaid meetings, or unpaid prep time. In our case, Monash concealed wage theft by misclassifying the tasks for which casuals were being paid.
For instance, supervisors might direct staff to record lectures and tutorials as an “other required activity” on our time sheets. In some cases, this allowed the university to send staff home with just one-third of the pay packet they were owed. Take a one-hour tutorial, with a standard two hours’ preparation time, as an example. If recorded as an “other required activity,” the teacher would take home just $45, leaving the preparation time unpaid. In some cases, this left tutors with just one-third of the paycheck they should have been entitled to.
The MCN’s data collection suggested this practice was not a mistake but part of employment protocol. Many workers told us they didn’t realize anyone at the university was being paid the tutorial rate, and were unaware that the work they were doing constituted tutorials.
An August 2020 NTEU survey of members across Australian universities asked staff to report on work conditions, including wage theft. A staggering 63 percent of respondents reported misclassification wage theft across more than a dozen schools of Monash University, from paramedicine to history, economics, and engineering.
Organizing Casual Academics
This analysis formed the basis of our wage theft campaign and allowed us to identify wage theft hot spots in the university. The networks we developed in the MCN helped us to organize workplace meetings in these schools. Given we were working as volunteer activists in the union, with limited resources, we decided to focus our efforts. Our goal was to organize around a dozen people from each of the two or three schools that were willing to catalogue and report — in detail — the wage theft they faced. We hoped that this would create a snowball effect.
At workplace meetings, we gave a presentation on the Monash University Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) that determines pay and conditions. We also explained the nature of wage theft and our procedures for collecting data. Once organized, these schools joined the Cross-School Coalition against wage theft, which met weekly to track data collection and liaise with the MCN, the NTEU Monash branch, and union staff on what was required to initiate industrial action.
At these meetings, many casual workers shared harrowing stories. Academics from the civil engineering school — disproportionately from vulnerable migrant communities — shared some of the worst accounts, explaining how their precarity is exacerbated by their visa status. In their school, misclassification of classes was rife and preparation time was unpaid. The result was that management effectively docked a full two-thirds of their pay.
One teacher in this school reported that a superior forced them to prepare and deliver a lecture for zero pay. Another immigrant worker reported that when he raised concerns about the exploitative practices endemic in the school, he was then subject to intimidation about his visa status.
Supervisors in the school tried to excuse these practices, claiming that these workers were not tutors but “practical class assistants,” and therefore not entitled to pay for preparation. This employee categorization does not exist in the EBA — it was effectively made up as a cover for underpayment. This suggests that teachers in the Department of Civil Engineering were expected to teach without preparation. The union submitted evidence exposing the cynicism of this claim, including role descriptions requiring “practical class assistants” in the civil engineering school to have “mastered unit content.”
While the meetings we organized were often focused on the challenges precarious university workers face, the point was to build solidarity and to reclaim a sense of dignity in our work. Most staff involved in the action agreed that it was only partially about getting stolen wages back — we also wanted to prevent this happening to anyone else in the future. This brought together staff members from a range of backgrounds, including new mothers, young immigrants, and low-income PhD students.
A Win for Workers, Students, and the Public
After months of organizing through the end of 2020 and early 2021, we had collated enough data from members of the CSC to make a watertight case to the union for industrial action. Up until this point, the NTEU provided minimal support for the MCN, which carried out the bulk of the legwork for this campaign. But once we had collected more than enough data, the NTEU branch lodged a wage theft complaint with university management, ultimately forcing Monash’s hand.
The end result was a win for workers and students — and for the public, who own our universities. Wage theft in Australian universities is not just theft from precarious staff in an ailing industry. It is theft from the students whose quality of education is impaired by poor educator pay, and it is theft from the Australian public that misses out on the social benefits of thriving universities.
Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner and Monash University management have still not acknowledged the impact of wage theft on the quality of education the university delivers. Neither has Monash acknowledged the material impact on the lives of precarious, casual academic staff who, according to the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, are at far greater risk of food and housing insecurity as compared to our fixed-term counterparts.
Indeed, renaming teaching as an “other required activity” speaks to university leaders’ cynical understanding of the institutions in which they work and their role within them. As the corporatization of Australian universities has accelerated, their role as providers of education has been marginalized.
This win is significant for the entire sector and many of the lowest-paid and hardest-working teachers in it. It’s a contribution to the struggle for workers’ rights in a sector that is increasingly casualized. The time we dedicate to teaching is what makes universities valuable — we deserve secure jobs and pay for the value that we create.