Campaign calls for ban on zero-hours

Hannah McNeill

Glasgow University Labour Club and three trade unions have started a campaign pressuring the University to stop using controversial zero-hours contracts and atypical workers.

A recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request, submitted by the Glasgow Guardian, has revealed the extent to which Glasgow University uses zero-hours contracts, which do not guarantee fixed hours of work. As of 19 August, there were 752 members of staff on a zero-hours contract, including 147 people working in academic colleges and 605 members of staff working in the University Services.

The university also has a large number of atypical workers, such as Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). Legally these workers are not employees of the University and they do not have the same protection as employees.

The three main trade unions on campus, Unison, Unite and the University and College Union (UCU), met with the University on 11 October to discuss the possibility of getting rid of zero-hours contracts. Glasgow University Labour Club are supporting the action and are trying to also speak to staff members that are not affiliated with a trade union. They want to widen the effort to clamp down on the use of outsourcing and atypical workers, as well as those on zero-hours contracts.This action was taken after the Edinburgh University decided to stop using them for 2,712 staff members.

Owen Mooney, Campaigns Officer for Glasgow University Labour Club, explained the reasoning behind the decision to campaign. He said: “Zero-hours contracts are disgraceful and exploitative and should not be used at Glasgow University. These contracts deny workers sick pay, holiday pay, and the ability to plan financially.

“We’re running this campaign because we recognise that this is an issue that directly affects students. Many of those employed on these contracts are GTAs and postgraduate students.  We also recognise that as students we have a moral responsibility to support staff and lecturers at Glasgow University, and ensure that they are not being exploited.”

The FoI request also revealed many staff members have been employed by the University on these contracts in the long term. Only 24 per cent of staff had been employed by the University for less than a year. 33 per cent of staff on zero-hours contracts had been employed by the University on them for five years or more.

Staff on zero-hours contracts within the Research and Teaching Job Family are told in their contract their hours will be set. The contract states: “Your expected hours of work will be notified to you as early as possible following the beginning of each academic year.”

One member of academic staff, a GTA employed as an atypical worker, anonymously told the Glasgow Guardian about her experiences. She said: “The University states that we do not have the standard employment rights of other ‘official’ employees. This contract is described as suitable for situations in which the requirement to undertake work is irregular and occasional, on an ad hoc basis, and individuals can choose whether or not to undertake the work offered. This does not describe the work that GTAs do – I teach weekly tutorials throughout term, the times of which are set in advance (so it is highly regularised) and I cannot just ‘choose’ to not turn up. Not only would I be letting down every student in that class, but I would not be re-employed as a GTA, because I would not be meeting the obligations of the work.”

She feels that Graduate Teaching Assistants are not valued by the University’s administration and management teams. In her situation, the University only expect her to put in half an hour of preparation for each tutorial she gives and pay her accordingly.

She said: “What does 30 minutes of prep time say about how the teaching of students is credited by the University? If I actually worked to task and did half an hours prep time, I would not have a credible lesson plan and the tutorial would not be of educational value to students. So I – and many other GTAs – do far more tutorial prep than we are paid for, and that is the university exploiting us.

“I think this is indicative of a negative attitude towards, or at least assumptions made about, GTAs. Some of these GTAs have families, have children or other dependents that they are supporting, and they rely on these payments. But that isn’t the stereotype of a PhD student – I get the impression that the average PhD student is imagined to be young and living without dependents, and there’s definitely a suggestion that PhD students are in some way ‘work-shy’ because they haven’t got a ‘real job in the real world’. A friend of mine told me that one administrator said they thought GTAs were paid far too much.”

Staff employed on zero-hours must agree to be available to work despite no contracted hours. Their contract they must sign states: “Your hours of work will vary according to the University’s needs. It is a condition of your employment that you work flexibly in accordance with the working arrangements operated by the University. Accordingly, you acknowledge that there may be periods when no work is available and that the University has no obligation to provide you with any work or to provide you with any minimum number of hours. However, we will endeavour to allocate suitable work to you when it is available.

“You shall be available to work when requested unless otherwise agreed in advance with us. You will notify the University as early as possible and normally not less than 24 hours in advance of any occasions when you will be unavailable for work you have agreed to undertake.”

University officials have not released a updated statement since the last issue of the Guardian. This previous statement said: “It is important to recognise that these contracts are often the most appropriate arrangement for the employee as well as for the University. Employees engaged on zero-hours contracts are under no obligation to accept work when offered.”