Challenging Zero Hours Academia

by Philip Roddis

Academics take note: a recent strike at Hovis over Zero Hours Contracts drew a line between their emergency and habitual usage, Premium Foods having breached an agreement barring the latter. Relevance? HEIs do not see ZHCs as an occasional tactic for unforeseeable circumstances, but as a long term strategy to bypass employment law. I should know. Last year my two hourly paid teaching contracts at Sheffield Hallam ceased without notice after five years of continual renewal. I claimed unfair dismissal and, alleging specific abuses, part-timer discrimination.

Be mindful of the law

An employment tribunal pre-hearing struck out both. It found me not dismissed at all; just “employed for zero hours”. The discrimination claim was sunk by the same torpedo. The law demands a full-time comparator on the same type of contract, but a full-timer on a ZHC is an oxymoron. My defeats highlight why HEIs love these contracts. Their use of them may be short-sighted and unimaginative. Morally it may stink. But universities are twice as likely as other employers to use ZHCs, and not just in emergencies. What can be done?

I see three battle fronts. One is the law: backing cases with legal muscle. Representing myself, and learning on the job, I cited Part-time Worker Regulations 2000 when I should have cited Fixed-term Employee Regulations 2002. I realised my error too late. The judge should we say this? (libel or something?) told me he could let me alter my claim “but I’m not going to”. Savvier representation and a different judge might have won the day so tribunals should not be ruled out, even in cases similar to mine.

Still on the legal front, the catch-22 circularity of the 2000 Regulations beggars belief. They outlaw part-timer discrimination by contract but require claimants to identify a full-time comparator on the same contract type! Sustained lobbying is needed, and a test case taken all the way.

We need a stronger Labour movement

A second front is industrial action but let’s not kid ourselves. Globalisation and the fall of the Soviet Union (which for all its evils indirectly reined in western capitalism’s uglier instincts) have weakened organised labour. In a neoliberal race to the bottom, employers are taking full advantage. Nor are we academics noted for solidarity. Pastor Niemoller’s rueful words (“first they came for the Jews …”) may grace many a collegiate wall but their relevance today seems to escape us. Add in implicit disregard for associate lecturers as ‘less than’, plus the fact Associate Lecturers  are the least likely to join UCU, and the likelihood of action gets vanishingly small.

I see publicity as the way forward. Edinburgh University showed twice recently (ZHCs, and indirectly funding drone strikes) that HEIs fear negative press. Here too my case is illuminating, so bear with me a moment. In 2006 I signed a ZHC I hadn’t read. Foolish of me, yes, but most ALs did the same. Here’s why. Each teaching job had its own contract, universally referred to as such at all levels of seniority. These were our concern, not a long forgotten document signed when the term ‘zero hours contract’ meant nothing to us.

When Hallam denied having dismissed me at all, far less unfairly, I was perplexed. Ditto by its saying it had but one contract with me when I had thirty separate documents headed with the c-word. Over time I pieced it together. Those contracts were, Hallam now insisted, merely ‘work offers’.

The judge agreed, ruling at pre-hearing that “the work-offers say contract number, not contract“. No small feat, you may conclude.

The contractual ambiguity is telling. Up its sleeve for a rainy day, Hallam holds a zero-hours card it has no wish to flaunt. We should flush it out. One elementary publicity task, therefore, is to ensure that all zero hours academics are aware of their status.

Need to share information

Another is to tell students how many of their lecturers (31% at Hallam) are on ZHCs. The July FOI survey was a master-stroke but there’s more to do. Imaginative ways must be found to bring home to students and wider public both the moral and practical implications. What price AL loyalty? What price much touted notions of Quality, Student Experience and Investing in People?

At the same time we should exploit employer divisions as they do ours; HEIs are not equally implicated. Heavy users fear media focus on the nasty, myopic game they are playing. Naming and shaming may concentrate minds, especially if (see in this respect my THE Opinion feature of September 26) we need a link here alternative means of achieving flexibility are put forward.

Colleagues, this fight can be won.

Philip Roddis blogs at 

An abridged version of this post appears in the latest issue of UCU Anti-Casualisation News