771 zero-hours contracts at Glasgow University

Hannah McNeill

Glasgow University has continued to employ 771 members of staff on zero-hours contracts, despite the recent outcry against this type of employment.

The number of staff on these controversial contracts has increased since April, when the university employed 734 people on this basis. Glasgow University has also continued to advertise zero-hours job vacancies on its website, despite receiving criticism from trade unions and academics.

Zero-hours contracts leave the employees with no guaranteed hours of work. Members of staff on these contracts include those in teaching positions, such as tutors and graduate teaching assistants. Often these people will work in scheduled tutorials and lectures.

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “It is important to recognise that these contracts are often the most appropriate arrangement for the employee as well as for the University. They offer a degree of flexibility where the pattern of work is irregular and variable. Where there is a requirement for work to be undertaken, it is planned and agreed over a period of time in most cases. Employees engaged on zero-hours contracts are under no obligation to accept work when offered.”

The Human Resources department of the University has laid out the policy for staff on these zero-hours contracts. It notes: “This is appropriate in situations in which the requirement for work to be undertaken is unpredictable and/or very variable. There will be months in which no work will be required to be undertaken and during these times the University will not be obliged to provide the employee with any work.”

A recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request submitted by the University and College Union (UCU) revealed the extent to which these types of contracts are used in universities across the UK. Edinburgh University has the highest number of staff on zero-hours contracts at 2712 people. UCU President Simon Renton slammed the findings of the FoI: “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.”

Edinburgh University has responded to the findings of UCU and agreed to start phasing out all zero-hours contracts for staff.

Legally, under zero-hours contracts, not all workers must be treated as employees and given the legal benefits of that title. Instead, there exists a group of people who work for the University, but are not considered employees – they are called ‘atypical workers.’ This leads to staff on zero-hours contracts not receiving full employee rights.

In the case of Glasgow University, workers are only considered employees if they have taken continuous work for over a year and have earned at least £2000 the previous year. The atypical workers are not entitled to the same level of holiday pay as employees, while it is also difficult for them to gain union representation.

One member of university staff employed on a zero-hours contract, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke about his experiences: “Overall I feel we are atomised; there’s nothing in the way of a union, so we’re left to deal with grievances one-on-one with higher ranks, and it seems that this allows for favouritism of workers, so some zero hours staff are given more hours than others because managers prefer their compliance.”

He went on to criticise some aspects of these contracts, citing short-term notice ahead of shifts and so feeling “expected to be at the beck and call of the management”, as well as being “plunged into places where [staff] have little experience.” Another issue was feeling like an inconvenience when other staff want extra hours, as “having a bank of zero-hours staff makes it hard for all other staff to pick up overtime”.

However, he also spoke about the benefits of his contract; hours are flexible and staff can essentially choose when to take time off.