People in casual and insecure employment are at regular risk of not being paid the correct rate for their work – including the 90 000 plus casual teaching staff, research assistants, professional staff, PhD students and others at Australian universities.

There are allegations of underpayment at universities across the country, notably at ones that rely heavily on casuals (CMM August 23 and September 26).  A Senate committee is conducting an inquiry into wage theft.

A casual employee’s contracted remuneration package can contain any of a large number of elements such as salary or wages, bonuses, employer superannuation, reimbursement of expenses for travel, accommodation, utilities, phones, childcare, healthcare, and professional association memberships. Each of these can be incorrectly calculated, resulting in an employee being short-changed.

Recent examples of underpayment of elements of remuneration packages abound as in the high-profile cases of Woolworths, 7Eleven operators, restaurateur George Colambaris’s and Qantas.

Underpayment of an aspect of a remuneration package such as wages or superannuation might occur by accident as the complexity of elements increases, and changes are made with increasing frequency.

Nonetheless, the advent of one of the most potent accounting tools, the electronic spreadsheet, has helped employers to calculate amounts attributable and to recalculate as necessary, usually in a short period, as soon as an error is discovered.

Separate from careless clerical errors of omission, where a transaction is not recorded, are errors of commission where the amount due is incorrectly recorded. Errors of commission could be because of ignorance, negligence, or involve a deliberate strategy to underpay employees. A deliberate strategy is revealed as wages theft and, as with any other form of theft, is illegal and to be punished under the law.

Victoria is the first state to make wage theft a criminal offence, through the Wage Theft Bill 2020. Taking effect from 1 July 2021, this legislation recognises the growing number of instances of wage theft, and the need to penalise perpetrators for stopping employers stealing wages and other employee entitlements, falsifying, or not keeping records. Wage Inspectorate Victoria, will be empowered to investigate, prosecute, and criminally penalise employers and directors for wage theft, with fines of about $1 million for corporations and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for individuals for falsified records.

The Queensland government also intends to legislate “tough criminal charges for deliberate wage theft.”

The push for laws to protect workers from wage theft, and the necessity of protecting reputations is one university administrators should take seriously.

It is time for universities to ensure all their casual workers are always paid the required rate for their work and doing this this must involve addressing the now too often unchallenged power of supervisors.

How university casual staff are being treated in terms of employment conditions and pay must be examined in full.

Roger Burritt FCPA is Honorary Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

James Guthrie AM FCPA is Distinguished Professor, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University


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