RMIT has opted to settle a months-long wage dispute with the National Tertiary Education Union, which will see thousands of current and former employees, mostly casuals, back paid about $10 million.
In a statement on Thursday, NTEU Victorian division assistant secretary Sarah Roberts said while it’s a satisfying win, the university doesn’t deserve any praise for the small task of paying its staff the wages they’re owed.
“Make no mistake, if it weren’t for the NTEU, members who fought RMIT tooth and nail for this outcome, it is unlikely casual staff would have seen one cent in back pay from the university,” Roberts said.
“This outcome is a result of months and months of hard work, with brave members coming forward to share their stories of how this has affected them, in addition to preparing written statements and providing extensive pay and assessment records at the university’s request.”
The NTEU first lodged the dispute in June this year, claiming that the university was paying casual staffers a “standard” rate for marking student work, when they were entitled to an “academic judgement” rate.
The average difference between the two rates is between $10 and $20 an hour.
Tensions between the university and the NTEU escalated last month, when the union referred the case to the Fair Work Commission, prompting RMIT to table a settlement on the condition that they wouldn’t have to admit liability.
The deal tabled by the university captured the unpaid wages of about 3,900 staffers who were on the payroll between July 2014 and June 2021, to the tune of $10 million, accounting for super and interest.
As part of the terms, RMIT will be required to provide the union with monthly updates on its efforts to get in touch with unpaid staff, and how much they’re managed to repay. RMIT has until the end of the year to settle with current staffers, and three months to clear its debt with those no longer working at the university.
The union will also appoint an “Oversight Committee”, who will have the jurisdiction to flag other matters of underpayment or wage theft over the course of the time they spend with the university.
Roberts said the fact that some of the university’s former staffers have been waiting as long as seven years to be paid the wages they’re owed only offers testimony to reports of the systemic labour issues seen across the university sector nationwide.
“It is encouraging that RMIT has agreed to further training and communication to ensure a consistent awareness and understanding of RMIT policy relating to the payment of academic judgement rates,” Roberts said.
“However, the critical fact RMIT and all universities across Australia must grapple with, is that wage theft is the result of insecure work inflicted on university workers through short-term contracts and casual employment,” she said.
She said the situation has been worsened by the way RMIT leadership has conducted itself throughout the settlement with the NTEU.
“The fact that RMIT has refused to pay members of the Oversight Committee, who are casual employees, is emblematic of the chronic under-appreciation — and exploitation — of these workers,” Roberts said.
“Wage theft has become ingrained in universities’ business models, and must end now,” she said. “RMIT is not the first institution to admit to wage theft and unless every university is compelled to undergo a thorough audit of its practices, it won’t be the last.”
The settlement emerges on the heels of an anti-casualisation campaign launched by the NTEU through the pandemic, which saw universities stand casual staffers down en masse without pay.
An amendment to the Fair Work Act in March, though, was meant to offer casuals across the university sector some hope.
The amendment required universities to offer permanent roles to casuals who have been employed for at least 12 months and had worked a regular pattern of hours for at least the six previous of those months.
But because so many university staff are on short-term rolling contracts with semester or summer breaks, few have been eligible to make the conversion from casual roles.
Just last week, the NTEU said that only 1% of university casuals had been moved into permanent roles in the six months since the amendment was legislated.