What will it take for the ANU’s tenants to pay their workers?

A few years ago, student newspaper Woroni caught the (now-closed) Sumo Salad restaurants in LK and the Canberra Centre underpaying its workers using a similar sham “training” arrangement of the kind that Grill’d would be caught doing a year later. This week, ANU Observer caught grocer Daily Market and popular bubble tea joint Chatime paying workers as little as $15 an hour while not receiving payslips.

In recent years, the ANU itself has been accused underpaying staff at University House, and tutors in the College of Science and College of Computer Science and Engineering. A report by UnionsACT in 2020 found that over 77% of on-campus workers experienced some form of underpayment.

Wage theft is frequently raised by students, ANUSA, and the Young Workers Centre as a problem that students face on the University’s property and, alas, the University seems to do nothing at all to force their tenants to follow the law. As I’ve said on this blog before, wage theft is virtually never an accident, and the excuses frequently offered often boil down to employers not fulfilling their legally mandated due diligence.

The ANU Council has the power under the university’s enabling legislation to make statues (effectively laws) for the “control and investment of the property of the University”. It also must, in the exercise of its functions, “pay attention to […] the needs of the Australian Capital Territory and the surrounding regions”.

There is no question that all the venues that have come under fire in recent times, the former Sumo Salad, the Daily Market, and Chatime, are all on leased university property that could be regulated under this clause and there is no question that workers in the Capital Region need their economy to be free of fraudsters who mistreat their workers and undercut honest businesses.

The ANU could do a lot to force their tenants, whose rent props up the University’s collapsing finances, to pay their workers properly. Specifically, the “control […] of the property” power could be used to give University officials the power to penalise tenants or break leases where tenants do not live up to basic workplace standards.

Alternatively, UnionsACT suggested that the ANU could put conditions into lease agreements that would have the same effect. At the time, the ANU pooh-pooh’d this suggestion, saying “legally it’s not our problem” suggesting workers go to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

This suggestion ignores that the ANU Council could, if they chose to, make wage theft on their property a problem. Instead, they choose not to, deferring to an institution which is famously slow to operate and frequently prefers to settle with miniscule “contrition payments” that even the Ombudsman admits are deficient.

Any reform the University could bring in would be welcome as many of their tenants over the years have clearly demonstrated no interest in paying their workers without additional oversight.


The header image is based on a Share Alike image by Nick-D on Wikimedia Commons. You may use it under the CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.

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