Student Workers Accuse University House and CECS of Wage Theft and Mistreatment
By Keeley Dickinson
This article contains discussion of workplace harassment.
Anonymous former and current employees of University House and the CECS Peer-Assisted Learning program have accused their employers of wage theft and mistreatment. An ANU spokesperson has denied that the University had prior knowledge of the accusations, and encourages employees to reach out if they have concerns regarding their pay and treatment in the workplace.
A report released in February 2020 by the Canberra Young Workers’ Centre outlined a number of ways that businesses operating on the ANU campus were violating the legal rights of workers. The primary accusation levelled at employers was wage theft, however, bullying and harassment were also highlighted. Since the publication of the report, Observer has heard from a student mentor currently employed by CECS, and a former hospitality worker at the ANU-run University House.
The former University House employee, who will remain anonymous, spoke to Observer about their two years working at the venue in a variety of roles. Following a change in management, the student alleges that they were not permitted to take breaks “even if it came to seven- or eight-hour long shifts”, and were told to push their start time back on timesheets so that they would not appear to be owed overtime pay. Any employees that “displeased the managers” found themselves with “less shifts, only very short shifts, or [were] the first ones that got their shifts cancelled.” They also report having tips stolen following the reopening of Boffins in June or July of 2018.
“Worse than the wage theft”, they stated, “was the general treatment of the management.” They claim that they were “literally stalked” by the manager, pressured into answering uncomfortable questions, and spammed with phone calls under different numbers outside of working hours. They describe how the experience negatively affected their mental health, causing them to suffer “anxiety attacks whenever [they] saw that anybody from University House was calling [them].”
In a statement to Observer, an ANU spokesperson affirmed that “bullying, intimidation, or any other threatening behaviour is not tolerated at ANU.” They also stated that they had “not received any allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviour from University House”, and as such were “not in a position to comment.” However, the spokesperson emphasised that if any employee was “concerned about conditions or behaviour in their workplace on campus”, they should contact ANU HR in order to immediately discuss the issue – stating that the University “takes these allegations seriously and will take action.”
The Young Workers’ Centre report found that 32% of on-campus workers surveyed had experienced workplace bullying or harassment, with 20% facing threats or punishment for questioning their pay or conditions. The report references a number of incidents of students being forced out of jobs, intimidated by managers and being “‘ignored”’ in lieu of being formally fired. 65% of surveyed workers were in precarious or insecure work which, according to the report, means that it is easy for employers to simply stop giving shifts if employees question their behaviour. There has been little direct action taken in response to these statistics and reports by ANU thus far.
This is not the only accusation of inappropriate conduct directed at ANU or businesses under its umbrella. CECS has also been accused of wage theft within its Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) Program. The allegation comes from one of its student mentors, who will remain anonymous. They report that they were told by the PAL Leader – a fellow student mentor with a “bit more responsibility” within the program – to lodge hours that they had worked after 6pm in their timesheet as if they had been worked prior to 6pm. They were told the instruction came “directly from [their] supervisor.” The student mentor reports being told that “[ANU does not] have the budget to pay for after hours work, so you have to lodge it as during the day.” They did this “many times” after being directed to do so. “If we put it outside of [ordinary hours] we just wouldn’t get paid, I assume. I never tried it.”
PAL mentors are classed as ‘casual professional staff’ within ANU, and as such their “ordinary hours of work”, per the ANU Enterprise Agreement, are between 8am and 6pm. Outside of these hours they are owed penalty rates. The student mentor told Observer that, in addition to their usual hours, “twice a semester” they had to attend events which ran from 6pm until 10pm – for which they were not paid the penalty rates to which they were entitled. The mentor stated that “when [they] asked one of the other mentors he said it was just part of the arrangement.”
When approached for comment, an ANU spokesperson stated that “[ANU pays] all [its] staff in accordance with the ANU Enterprise Agreement, including loadings and penalties.” They added that “the University regularly audits its own operations to ensure compliance,” and encouraged staff members who are “concerned about any aspect of their pay, including advice from supervisors which they believe may not be correct” to contact their College HR team to “discuss their concerns or to seek clarification.”
The student mentor additionally alleged that it took eight weeks after they commenced employment at ANU for them to receive their first paycheck, stating that, although they had their contract from the start, they “just didn’t get paid.” They expressed that “[they] kinda put it down to [their] supervisor being extremely disorganised and unresponsive.”
ANUSA Education Officer, Skanda Panditharatne, has responded to the allegations against University House and the PAL program, describing them as “horrifying”, and stating that it “describes truly abhorrent and irresponsible behaviour from ANU employers.” He called for ANU to run an independent investigation into “on-campus wage theft and working conditions at University House and in the PAL program”, as well as an investigation into “whether similar abuse of workers is taking place in other parts of the University.”
Panditharatne also encouraged “any student workers who feel they may have been the victims of wage theft or employer abuse to email ANUSA at [email protected] and the Young Workers Centre at [email protected]” He also called for “all workers to join [their] relevant union – whether that be the NTEU, the United Workers Union, RAFFWU, or another union – to join the collective fight for workers against abusive employers.”
Contributing reporting by Anthony Lotric
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