We must crack down on exploitation of teachers by colleges and universities

TUC research shows that 63 per cent of FE colleges and more than half of universities use zero-hours contracts, often in large numbers.


TUC research shows that 63 per cent of FE colleges and more than half of universities use zero-hours contracts, often in large numbers

This week is the TUC’s Decent Jobs Week and it’s certainly well timed. As a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed, incomes have fallen and the number of working families in poverty is growing.

One major cause of working poverty is the actions of employers and in particular the way they have actively destroyed decent jobs.

The casualisation of work and bogus self-employment and zero-hours contracts have proliferated, most commonly in the low-paid, low-skilled service sectors that make up such a large part of our low-wage economy.

But students in our further education colleges or paying £9,000-a-year university fees might be surprised to learn that many of the people teaching them are also on appallingly casualised contracts and struggle to make ends meet.

The college teacher who wrote so movingly in the Guardian recently about her decision to leave the sector to work in retail is not, tragically, unusual.

Our research last year showed that 63 per cent of FE colleges and more than half of universities use zero-hours contracts, often in large numbers.

Our surveys reveal heart-rending stories of lecturers on zero-hours and short-term contracts living in constant fear that they will have no teaching hours and no income. If you’re a woman working in further or higher education, you are more likely to be on a fixed-term or temporary contract and you are more likely to stay there for longer.

This can have a devastating effect on career aspirations, but also on the ability to plan a family. Women members tell us they are unable or afraid to start a family while working on precarious contracts.

It is easy to see why when you get reports of people struggling to access maternity pay, unable to take proper leave, made redundant while on leave or unable to return to the same job afterwards.

Our colleges and universities like to tell themselves – and other people – that they are enlightened employers. Indeed, there’s a mini-industry in self-congratulating HR awards in our sector. But the reality is that too many of them are mimicking the worst HR practices found in our broken economy.

In lieu of a government that is serious about tackling the grotesque imbalance of power in Britain’s workplaces, it falls to trade unions to fight for decent jobs. It’s an uphill struggle, but we are making some ground.

Through our ‘Stamp our Casual Contracts’ campaign, we’re targeting the institutions who make greatest use of zero-hours contracts and pushing them to change direction, with some success.

We’re pushing for our research-intensive universities to start to abandon their unjust and ridiculously inefficient mass use of fixed-term contracts. Some employers get this and are starting to work with us, but still far too few, so we have to keep building, organising and raising the profile of this issue.

We will be releasing a report early next year that looks at the problems people without secure employment have to deal with, really highlighting personal stories. For too long, employers have hidden behind the excuse of flexibility for workers when defending these sorts of contracts. That flexibility is too often a one-way street, working solely in the interests of the powerful.

Ultimately, we will have to win a political battle for an alternative approach to our economy. We need to focus on creating decent jobs and building high-skilled sectors as part of a new path to growth. High-quality education and high-quality public services will be integral to this project.

But in the meantime, UCU will play its core role as a trade union: organising, campaigning and bargaining with our employers to stop exploitation and to create better jobs in our colleges and universities.

 Jonathan White is Bargaining and Negotiations officer at the University and College Union

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