Zero-hours contract offensive in the colleges and universities

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Demonstration at the University of Sussex which was occupied in defence of staff jobs and against zero-hours contracts
Demonstration at the University of Sussex which was occupied in defence of staff jobs and against zero-hours contracts

OVER half of universities and colleges use lecturers on zero-hour contracts and, furthermore, universities and colleges are twice as likely to use zero-hour contracts than other workplaces.

This startling revelation was made public yesterday by the University and College Union (UCU).

Sixty-one per cent of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts, and 53% of UK universities that responded to the union’s Freedom of Information request use them.

Overall, a quarter (27%) of companies use zero-hour contracts, according to recent research from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation.

The union said the use of zero-hour contracts is rather haphazard and it is difficult to truly reflect just how widespread their usage is.

Despite the large numbers of colleges and universities using zero-hour contracts, only a handful of institutions said they had policies on them.

Of the universities that reported they use zero-hour contracts:

• just under half (46%) had more than 200 staff on zero-hour contracts;

• at the remaining 54% of institutions, the number employed on zero-hour contracts ranged from one to 199;

• five institutions had more than 1,000 people on zero-hour contracts;

• of the institutions that supplied information about zero-hour staff in work, just one in four (24%) said all their staff on zero-hour contracts currently had work.

Zero-hour contracts are far more prevalent for university staff involved in teaching than in research.

The number of zero-hour teaching contracts in universities equates to 47% of the total number of ‘teaching-only’ posts that institutions report annually to the national statistical agency.

The union said its findings shone an important light on the murky world of casualisation amongst teaching staff.

UCU said that recent attempts to uncover how prevalent zero-hour contracts are, have highlighted just how difficult it is to get to the bottom of the problem.

Research released at the start of August suggested that there could be around one million workers in the UK on zero-hours contracts – a marked increase on revised estimations from the Office of National Statistics of 250,000 just days earlier.

UCU president, Simon Renton, said: ‘Our findings shine a light on the murky world of casualisation in further and higher education.

‘Their widespread use is the unacceptable underbelly of our colleges and universities.

‘Employers cannot hide behind the excuse of flexibility.

‘This flexibility is not a two-way street and, for far too many people, it is simply a case of exploitation.

‘We are encouraged that both the government and the opposition have said they will be looking at zero-hour contracts, but neither side has yet said anything that will give the thousands of people subjected to these conditions much hope.

‘The extent of the use of zero-hour contracts is difficult to pin down, as various groups have found, but their prevalence in our universities and colleges leads to all sorts of uncertainty for staff.

‘Without a guaranteed income, workers on zero-hour contracts are unable to make financial or employment plans on a year-to-year, or even month-to-month basis.’

The department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) is currently conducting a review of zero-hour contracts, which UCU will be contributing to.

Shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, has written to Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, to raise concerns that official figures do not reflect the true scale of zero-hour contracts.

The Labour Party is likely to debate zero-hour contracts in the House of Commons after the party conference season.

On Sunday afternoon, UCU will lead a debate on zero-hour contracts at the TUC Congress in Bournemouth and call on other unions to join the fight against insecure contracts.

On 1st July 2013, UCU sent a Freedom of Information Act request to every UK higher education institution asking questions about the use of zero-hour contracts at the institution.

The union received replies from 145 institutions – three of which have refused to provide the data: either because they do not hold it (two) or because of the cost of compiling the data (one).

17 institutions have so far failed to respond to the request.

Whilst most institutions were able to say whether or not they used zero-hour contracts, there remained some uncertainty about the definition of such contracts.

Meanwhile, the Communication Workers Union will be holding a press conference ahead of this year’s TUC Congress in Bournemouth on Sunday at 1.30-2.00pm, to discuss the ongoing campaign against Royal Mail privatisation.

CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and Head of Communications Kevin Slocombe will be on hand to explain and discuss the campaign against government plans to privatise Royal Mail, the mounting opposition, arguments for keeping the postal company in public hands, and the planned strike ballot among Royal Mail workers.

The CWU’s motion to the TUC Congress on Royal Mail privatisation – motion 44 – will be heard on Tuesday morning, expected between 10.45 and 11am.

The motion reads: ‘Congress notes the intention of the coalition government to privatise Royal Mail.

‘Privatisation will lead to higher prices for domestic and small business customers.

‘Private owners will press for the removal of the current universal service and uniform tariff obligations. Inevitably service will decline for rural and remote areas.

‘Congress rejects the government’s suggestion that this is the only method that can secure investment for the service.

‘In the previous year, Royal Mail made £411 million profit as a public service, and could become self-financing.

‘Without changing ownership, Royal Mail could borrow money from markets, at a cheaper rate, in line with companies such as Network Rail.

‘Such methods of investment operate throughout the EU for government-related entities such as Royal Mail.

‘Congress applauds the decision of postal workers to reject privatisation in an independent ballot by 96% on a 74% turnout.

‘This was despite government attempts to buy-off the workforce with suggestions of a distribution of shares to staff.

‘Congress registers that the CWU is in dispute with Royal Mail on future terms and conditions, and supports its campaign to defend these.

‘Further, Congress supports Post Office staff who have undertaken a number of days strike action for justice on pay, and against the downgrading of the Crown Office network.

‘Congress pledges its support for an equitable settlement.

‘Congress agrees to support the campaign to Save Our Royal Mail (SORM), and directs the General Council to ensure the TUC’s participation in its initiatives.’