University of Melbourne Faces Near $75,000 Fine for Threatening Casual Employees

The two staff members requested compensation after working beyond their contracted hours.
University of Melbourne Faces Near $75,000 Fine for Threatening Casual Employees
Signage for The University of Melbourne is seen in Melbourne, Australia, on Nov. 2, 2022. (AAP Image/James Ross)

The University of Melbourne was penalised nearly $74,590 (US$49,000) for violating fair work legislation on two counts—threatening two casual academics in August 2020 and refusing further work to one of them in February 2021.

The Fair Work Ombudsman took legal action against the institution, bringing the case to the Federal Court.

The two staff members requested compensation after working beyond their contracted hours. In response, a university supervisor warned them that claiming such payment would endanger future employment opportunities.

Justice Craig Dowling found this to be a serious breach of the Fair Work Act, which states that employees have the right to express workload concerns and request appropriate compensation without receiving any consequences for doing so.

Furthermore, Mr. Dowling underscored the need for such impositions of penalties considering the university’s significant number of both casual and a larger percentage of fixed-term employees.

These employees are heavily reliant on the renewal of their contracts of employment, making them vulnerable to misconduct performed by the university should there be any.

“There is zero place for adverse action in our workplaces. Adverse action directly undermines workplace laws and the ability of employees to exercise their lawful rights—and this is unacceptable,” Fair Work Ombudsman Anna Booth said, emphasising the importance of acknowledging fundamental employee rights, rectifying any workplace issues, and fostering acceptable workplace conduct.

Both parties have already been compensated $37,295 each and were given a public apology issued by the university.

Represented by barrister Richard Dalton KC, the university professed that it insufficiently evaluated the workload of their casual employees. He also said that the university had established reforms that focused on improving their attentiveness to the needs of their casuals.

Mr. Dalton argued that there was no sufficient evidence that pointed to a violation of the Fair Work Act because the university supervisor involved committed a mistake on his part by assuming that the casual employee had enough time to complete their tasks.

Fiona Knowles, a representative of the ombudsman, said that the threat of employment termination was, nonetheless, a menacing act and contributed to creating a hostile work environment.

Casual Academics Repaid for Underpayments

In a separate Federal Court litigation filed by the Ombudsman, the university repaid at least 12 of its 14 casual academics for underpayments made between April 2016 and December 2019.

The total amount of underpayments was nearly equivalent to $154,000, ranging from $927 to $30,140 for each staff member.

In addition to these penalties, the University of Melbourne was also fined $630,000 per alleged serious contravention of fair work legislation and up to $63,000 for other allegations.

Both issues have prompted the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate underpayment issues that may be present in other universities nationally in a bid to combat injustices in workplaces.

“Allegations of universities underpaying their employees by systematically failing to follow their own enterprise agreements are of great concern. It is important that where we find alleged serious contraventions we take employers to court and seek penalties to deter non-compliance,” Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said.

Celene Ignacio is a reporter based in Sydney, Australia. She previously worked as a reporter for S&P Global, BusinessWorld Philippines, and The Manila Times.
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