To End the Epidemic of Wage Theft, Australian Universities Must Abolish Piece Rates

The list of Australian universities that have admitted to systematically underpaying casual employees is growing every month. The scale of the problem shows that these aren’t innocent errors — rather, wage theft is built into the core of casual work.

The Caulfield campus of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, which has admitted to underpaying casual academic employees by $8.77 million. (Rob Deutscher / Wikimedia Commons)

The dramatic expansion of casual academic work in recent years is both a symptom of the crisis currently engulfing Australia’s universities and a key barrier to resolving it. For decades, successive governments and university managers have agreed that casual employment would deliver much needed “flexibility,” benefiting both workers and universities. The result has been rampant wage theft.

In the last two years, casual academics and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) activists have exposed Monash, La Trobe, the University of Melbourne, the University of Newcastle, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Sydney for systematically underpaying casual academics by tens of millions of dollars. This list is likely to expand in coming months and years.

Indeed, the situation is so bad that university managers have largely stopped trying to conceal it. Last month, a Senate Economics Committee hearing listened to submissions from university workers and representatives from management. Although some of the university representatives downplayed the problem, none of them attempted to deny it.

Compounding this is the fact that casual academics disproportionately bore the brunt of job losses during the pandemic. According to a review by Melbourne University academic Frank Larkins, nearly 30 percent of casuals in the sector lost their jobs between 2019 and 2021. Now, the push is on for reform. Casual university workers are demanding fair pay and secure jobs — and to achieve this, it will be necessary to fundamentally transform the nature of university employment.

Wage Theft

In many ways, Monash University is a paradigmatic example of systematic wage theft and university managers’ disingenuous attempts to limit their liability. In September 2020, an HR representative from Monash University made a submission to the federal Senate Economics Reference Committee inquiry into unlawful underpayments of employee remuneration.

At the time, the university representative testified that “Monash currently has no claims of underpayment from current academic casual staff.” As they went on to claim, “The underlying assumption in the nomenclature of ‘wage theft’ — of a desire or intention by the university to not be fully compliant — is inappropriate and inaccurate.”

Less than two years later, in February 2022, the same inquiry summoned Margaret Gardner, the vice-chancellor of Monash University. In the meantime, Monash had undertaken an internal review of wage theft and admitted to underpaying casual academics by $8.77 million. In her opening statement, Gardner conceded that “in hindsight, I feel that we should have signaled to the committee [in September 2020] our intention to undertake this review. I unreservedly apologize.”

By admitting the problem, Gardner avoided a potentially more embarrassing legal dispute. And, at the same time, she strategically limited Monash’s liability — and her own. Monash’s review concluded with 2020 and only stretched back six years to 2014, the same year that Gardner accepted the top job at Monash, before which she held the offices of vice-chancellor and president at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Coincidentally, the statute of limitations on claiming unpaid wages in Australia is also six years. If Monash — and other universities — were serious about returning stolen wages to casual academics, they would have to go far further back.

Wage Theft Is Part of the Job

It’s incredibly difficult to accurately estimate exactly how much underpayment has occurred at Monash and elsewhere. This is in large part because enterprise agreements (EAs) and casual employment contracts don’t include many tasks that are taken to be “part of the job.”

Universities often expect casual academics to hold consultation hours, correspond with students, attend lectures and meetings, and perform administrative work for free. And while casuals are paid for marking assignments, they are expected to do so at an unrealistically fast pace, with the result that most casuals end up marking tens of thousands of words for free each semester. It amounts to a systemic culture of wage theft, much of which is difficult to accurately quantify.

Another barrier to estimating the extent of wage theft is that most universities don’t keep detailed records about casual employees. When casual staff request a review of the payment system or ask to be paid accurately for work performed, HR departments usually meet them with derision.

Indeed, Monash University only agreed to undertake a review into wage theft after casual staff members and their representatives in the Monash Casuals Network (MCN) blew the whistle to the media, following years of internal petitioning.

And despite admitting to underpayment, the university has refused to make its review public, while management has denied repeated requests to meet with casuals’ representatives. Consequently, it’s difficult to form an accurate picture of how much wage theft Monash’s review omits or conceals.

By Monash’s admission, the review focused on payroll discrepancies, which could largely be presented as inadvertent. As a result, it excludes the most substantial claims made by casuals, including those related to unpaid time spent marking and the misclassification of teaching work. Tellingly, Monash has made no technical changes to its payroll system since its review.

The simple way to fix this problem would be to listen to casual academics. However, Monash is doing everything in its power to avoid just this. The university assigned a deputy chancellor, Peter Young QC, a senior member of the Victorian Bar Association, to head up its internal review. He was joined by another deputy chancellor, Simon Crean, a former leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Although the Monash Casuals Network had blown the whistle on the problem, the review never contacted the MCN.

Piece Rates

Most universities require casual employees to submit a time sheet on a regular basis, specifying exactly what types of work they have done and for how long. Casual university contracts specify in advance the maximum number of hours that casuals can claim for various tasks, which are usually paid at different rates. In other industries, this is known for what it is: piecework.

University bosses argue that underpayment can be fixed by improving this system of piecework. This is wrong. Wage theft is an inevitable and essential part of any system of piecework. This is because casual university workers perform exactly the same jobs as academics on fixed-term or ongoing contracts. Just like contracted staff, casual workers give lectures and run tutorials and seminars. They mark assignments and take care of administrative tasks. The difference is that contracted staff are paid a regular salary while casuals are paid piece rates for individual tasks.

In a given week, for example, a casual tutor may be able to claim one tutorial, two or three repeat tutorials, and a handful of hours for marking assignments. All these jobs have different rates of remuneration, as specified in enterprise agreements. Because universities typically budget in advance for the teaching year, school managers and casual supervisors are required to limit the number of hours they can assign to casual employees.

This results in wage theft in three ways. First, casual piece rates often underestimate the time it takes to complete a job. This is most often the case with marking but is also common with preparation for classes. Second, casual piece rates don’t include necessary labor — for example, meetings, correspondence, or attending lectures to prepare for tutoring. Many EAs use the word “contemporaneous” to describe this associated work. HR departments then abuse this term to an absurd degree by arguing that unpaid work performed by casuals on entirely different days from their teaching is included.

Third, by quantifying tasks on an hourly basis, casual piece rates overlook the fact that the actual amount of labor required varies widely in practice. Think, for example, of the work it took to shift teaching online during the pandemic. Much of that work fell on casual employees’ shoulders — but there was no recompense for it.

These facts point to the lie at the heart of university and government justifications for casual work. Far from being a more “flexible” arrangement, casual work is highly administered and precisely predetermined. It’s also absurdly bureaucratic, as HR departments are required to process thousands of casual time sheets every pay cycle, often resulting in mistakes — never in casuals’ favor — or delays in paying wages.

According to data from 2020, in Victoria — the only state that requires universities to report casual employment data — casuals make up almost 70 percent of university workers. Casual university workers carry out the minimum and necessary labor needed to keep the lights on at universities around Australia. The work they do is anything but casual — it’s essential and ongoing. For casuals, “flexibility” means underpayment and no job security. For managers, it means the power to slash teaching budgets by underpaying workers and pushing down wages.

What Casuals Want

Casual university workers have protested against this trend for years, with their complaints often falling on deaf ears. Historically, the NTEU has often overlooked the issue, instead focusing on conditions for permanent staff. For years, when the NTEU did address complaints of wage theft, the union’s service-provision model of organizing saw it prioritize giving individual members advice. These approaches often compounded the isolation endured by casual union members.

The situation began to change, however, when casual workers around the country organized and took their protest to the public. As it has become apparent that the problem is so systematic that it cannot be ignored, the NTEU has begun to take steps to support its casual members.

No one understands how better to end the hyperexploitation of casual university workers than the casuals themselves. On the same day that Monash University VC Margaret Gardener apologized for misleading the Senate Economics Committee, representatives from the Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW) network presented their own recommendations. The central demand is for universities to abolish piece rates for casual university workers. Piecework is, after all, the mechanism that bears most responsibility for wage theft. Instead, universities must commit to the principle “all hours paid for all hours worked.” Without this, it won’t be possible to end the crisis of Australian universities or to abolish wage theft.

And beyond this, casuals and their union must demand that state and federal governments place caps on casual labor and mandate that universities create secure jobs. After all, vice chancellors and university managers are to blame for this situation. They cannot be trusted to fix it — instead, they must be held to account.