Melbourne University fined $75,000 in Federal Court for threatening casual staff

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The University of Melbourne has admitted it breached fair work legislation and has been fined almost $75,000 in the Federal Court after two casual academic staff members were threatened.

The Fair Work Ombudsman pursued legal action against the university when two staff members complained they had been threatened for claiming payment of work outside their contracted hours.

The staff members made a complaint to their supervisor, who they claimed then threatened them with words to the effect of: “If you claim outside your contracted hours, don’t expect work next year.”

One of the staff members was not re-employed by the university.

Under the Fair Work Act, it is unlawful for an employer to take adverse action against an employee because they exercised a workplace right.

Judge Craig Dowling found the university breached the Fair Work Act on two occasions.

The first instance was when it threatened the staff members and the second was when one of the casual academics was not re-employed.

In his judgment, Judge Dowling said the staff members were entitled to be paid for work they performed as casual academics, and they were entitled to complain to their supervisor about their ability to work within their contracted hours.

Judge Dowling said those complaints should have been free of consequence, especially when they were dependent on the university for re-employment.

He said the actions were serious contraventions of the Fair Work Act.

Fair Work Ombudsman Anna Booth said the University of Melbourne’s conduct – which it admitted – impacted on fundamental employee rights.

“There is zero place for adverse action in our workplaces,” she said.

“Adverse action directly undermines workplace laws and the ability of employees to exercise their lawful rights – and this is unacceptable.

“These adverse actions in this case are exactly the kind of workplace conduct that inhibits people speaking up about their rights.”

Ms Booth said Fair Work was investigating other allegations involving underpayment issues in multiple universities nationally, including failures to pay casual academics for all hours worked.

“The university sector is a regulatory priority for the agency,” she said.

“Employers should have proactive measures in place to ensure they are meeting workplace laws.

“If employers become aware of concerns their employees may be being underpaid, including directly from the employees, the only appropriate response is to check that they are paying their employees correctly and promptly rectify any compliance issues discovered.”

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