The Students' Representative Council clashed in their first meeting this evening over a report on this newspaper's front page on accusations that minibus drivers are being exploited by the SRC through casual work contracts. The SRC’s minibus drivers are required to sign a contractor’s agreement, meaning that they are considered to be self-employed ‘contractors’ rather than employees of the SRC. As independent contractors, they have none of the rights or protections employees benefit from, despite having many obligations similar to those of an employee.
President of the SRC, Liam King, opened the meeting with reference to a document compiled by himself being circulated among council members, specifically regarding The Glasgow Guardian article. He commented: “I’d like to give some background to the story that was published in The Glasgow Guardian earlier in the week and also background to the contractual arrangements of the bus drivers. I think I would preface this discussion with just one comment before opening it to the floor. This is the glamorous world of – albeit student – politics. Real choices in real contexts, and not the choices we wish we could make so I would ask you to bear that in mind.”
As recently as 2014, the SRC committed itself to stamping out such practices on campus: “Reviewing zero hours and atypical contracts has been on the University’s agenda since summer 2013 and the SRC have been keeping the pressure on the University’s Human Resources by questioning these contracts and how the University’s is planning to resolve this… to campaign for the replacement, as soon as practically possible, of zero-hours and atypical contracts for staff that offer greater stability and financial security, unless staff choose to remain on zero-hours or atypical contracts… to mandate our representatives on Senate, University Court and any relevant committees to raise the issue, and where relevant vote in favour of their abolition… to work constructively with trade unions on campus to aid them in their efforts at negotiation on the issue.”
Elliot Napier, the SRC’s Age Equality Officer, and a part-time minibus driver for the SRC, quizzed King. He said: “My principle question is that the response you’ve given, Liam, and [this document] does not address the allegation of hypocrisy. You’ve addressed the legal aspect and set out the basis on which decisions were made but it doesn’t address the conflict between the SRC’s previous stance [against zero hours contracts] and I’d like to know: what’s your answer to that?”
King replied: “We are a small organisation. What the briefing paper does is go in to some detail on the costs and what it would cost to switch the bus drivers to employee status. If the bus drivers were employees we would not be able to deliver the same quality to students. We simply would not be able to afford it on our payroll".
“The whole purpose of these contracts, of the contractual arrangement was to give ourselves and the many bus drivers as much flexibility as possible. So I can appreciate where you’re coming from however we open ourselves up to too much liability by discussing contractual aspects at the moment.”
Bob Hay, Permanent Secretary of the SRC defended the use of the Contractor's Agreement, saying: “It’s not always about what’s written down. It’s about how you treat contractors or employees. We’re a small charitable organisation, we do our best. We have to do what’s best for the service thousands and thousands use every year. Exploitation suggests we’re using people’s labour for financial gain; we have to balance the interests of contractors and students who use the service. The contractors are receiving what would be above the living wage, were they employees. It was introduced to accommodate students. “
“At the time [the contractor's agreement was introduced] zero hour contracts weren’t really ‘a thing’ as they are now. If I heard of a hotel putting people on zero hours contracts and charging people a fortune to sleep in those rooms I’d be the first one to campaign against that. What we’re doing is working with contractors.”
Elliot Napier replied to this, “So because the workers work for a charity, zero hour contracts are okay but if it were a private company, it’s not: the reality doesn’t really stand up.”
Bob Hay defended his position, saying: “As I said before: exploitation suggests there’s financial gain. I’m not quite sure what we gain from this financially “
Elliot Napier replied to this query, saying: “That the SRC aren’t paying £4, 700 annually in holiday pay or £2,835 in pension pay. Now I accept that the money might be used on other services and things…”
Bob Hay interjected, “But who’s gaining financially?”
Elliot Napier replied, “Well, the students. “
Bob Hay asked, “And who’s losing?’
Elliot Napier replied, “The people who are not employed, the people who are contracted to drive the buses”
James Richardson, School Representative for Social and Political Sciences criticised the SRC’s use and subsequent defence of casual work contracts, saying: “First off I’d say on your comment that you’re paying £8 an hour: you’re not paying national insurance, sick pay, maternity pay, so it’s less than the minimum wage. My question is: are you saying the SRC can only afford to run the buses with these contracts when these contracts are widely seen as unfair?”
“This is not what we expect of the SRC, this is not what we expect of this university. For employers who have campaigned against zero hours contracts to actually say that the only way we can afford this if we squeeze employees – sorry, not employees.”
Liam King replied, “As it stands we cannot afford to meet the level of demand and provide this service that we have for students without this arrangement.”
James pressed the topic, asking “So rather than saying to the university “This is unethical”, employing people without rights, we should squeeze the workers?”
Liam King replied, “Over the summer the university were pursuing a living wage decision, we did discuss with the university whether they would increase our block grant and it was made clear to us that they would not increase our block grant.”
The council agreed to consult with the bus drivers themselves before pursuing any further action.
Liam King’s distributed document at the meeting also gives details of how such casual contracts are used elsewhere in the SRC: “We also provide them for Class Representative Trainers and for Tour Guides.”
The document details the tax arrangements of SRC minibus drivers, stating: “As self-employed individuals the minibus drivers are required to make their own tax returns and pay tax on monies paid to them.”
Additionally it retorts to the case raised in The Glasgow Guardian article of an employer having their contract terminated after complaining about a shift: “GUSRC are accused of regarding drivers as “disposable”. This is only the second driver ever to have their contract terminated.”
“Such decisions are not taken lightly. The work of the minibus drivers is not easy. They are highly valued and this is reflected in the emails we often receive from students praising drivers who have gone out of their way to be of extra assistance.”
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