A year of working for precarious staff


Zeroing in on zero hours contracts

Hardly a week goes by at the moment without a press story about Zero Hours Contracts, which is why UCU and the Anti-Casualisation Committee in particular have worked hard to capitalize on the issue’s current public and political profile of zero hours contracts to push institutions to move away from such exploitation.

In September 2013, as Ed Miliband pledged that a future Labour government would legislate to end the abuse of zero-hours contracts, UCU directly lobbied the Labour leader and the Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Ummuna, including face-to-face meetings with ACC Vice Chair Mahmoona Shah. Under pressure on the issue, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills opened an informal consultation, to which UCU responded in March this year.

While much of the discussion of zero hours contracts has focused on their use in the service sector, UCU has worked hard to shine a light on their use in post-secondary education. In October 2013, following a motion to that year’s Congress, UCU conducted a Freedom of Information request on every university, higher education institution and further education college asking about their use of zero-hours contract. The union then published the results, showing that zero hours contracts were being widely used in sixty-one percent of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and 53% of UK universities.

In April 2014, two UCU Scotland lecturers on zero-hours contracts appeared before the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to give detailed evidence to MPs. Later in the same month, the Labour Party published the Pickavance report into zero hours contracts and Ed Miliband pledged to legislate to provide some rights to proper contracts.

Meanwhile, UCU has kept zero hours contracts in post-secondary education in the press, with a succession of stories and features in the Guardian, the Times Higher and, very recently, the Sunday Times.

This pressure is beginning to tell. In October 2013, under pressure from UCU and the Scottish administration, Edinburgh University promised to end its use of zero-hours contracts and in May this year, other Scottish universities were at pains to reassure the press that they are working to similarly reduce them. In April and May, as the pay came to an end, work began at JNCHES on the other parts of the joint unions’ claim including discussions over the use of zero-hours contracts in the sector.

But the union has also sought to capitalize on this pressure at local level, using the information from the FOI to establish target institutions in every region and starting to build pressure on those institutions to end the use of zero-hours contracts.

Mainstreaming the issue

The FOI data highlighted shocking levels of causalisation – 30% of teaching staff in FE colleges, and 67% of university researchers on precarious contracts. This is very much a mainstream issue which is affecting a growing proportion of staff. It is also about preventing the de-skilling of educators and defending professionalism against the proliferation of low paid, precarious work. This is why the Anti-casualisation Committee has been working to ensure the needs of casualised members are reflected in the pay claim. The needs of casualised members were acknowledged in the 2014 HE pay claim. Motions to both sector conferences in June note the need for pay claims to acknowledge casualisation as a central issue.

Other motions focus on providing support and guidance to branches on ensuring the voice of casualised members is represented and heard, and meaningful data collection to enable branches to organise and recruit more effectively.

Decent contracts for all hourly paid staff

The fact that so many hourly paid staff have turned out to be on zero hours contracts has given the union a great opportunity to press institutions on their use an abuse of hourly paid staff more generally. That’s why UCU has launched a drive to finally complete the process of getting all hourly paid staff in HE assimilated to the national pay framework. UCU has also continued to push for good local agreements that get hourly paid staff onto a decent pay rate with proper progression and a clear pathway to fractional contracts.

Defending researchers

April 2013 saw the government’s law change come into force to remove the obligation on employers to include staff whose fixed-term contracts end when establishing the need for collective consultation over redundancies. This is a blatant attack on fixed-term research staff in particular, shamefully instigated following lobbying by university heads.

UCU has challenged this law change in the European Courts. The union has also written to every employer in the sector urging them to retain best practice in the sector and encouraging branches to raise this as a matter of urgency and we continue to monitor the employers’ responses.

Raising the profile of casualisation in the union

The profile of casualisation and of the Anti-Casualisation Committee have arguably never been higher. This year saw the Committee publish two editions of Anti-Casualisation news, in spring and winter of 2013 as well as launch a new blogsite (https://ucuanticas.wordpress.com) and build its social media profile on Twitter (@UCUAnti_Cas).

In February 2014, socialist writer and journalist Owen Jones addressed another well-attended annual meeting, motions were passed that formed the basis of the Committee’s motions to UCU’s Congress and a new committee was elected.


7 May saw the Anti-Casualisation Day of Action with branches across the country holding stalls, meetings, launching surveys and pledging to organise actions over the coming months to raise the profile of casualisation. Every member on a casualised contract was also emailed with a request to send the message to a member of staff they know on a casual contract and the General Secretary was featured in a Telegraph blog on casualisation in further and higher education.

Into next year…

At its inaugural meeting in May, the new Anti-Casualisation Committee established that it would continue to use the public attention on zero hours contracts to continue supporting and promoting local and national initiatives to eradicate zero-hours contracts. It also decided to use this opportunity to support and promote local action to provide greater continuity of employment, fairer pay, equality of treatment and proper professional contracts for all casualised staff. We need to talk about casualisation. But now is also the time to raise the demands for local action.

What you can do:

  • Review your branch’s priorities: how can you push forward on job security, continuity of employment and fair contracts for casualised staff in the next year?
  • Pledge to hold a meeting for casualised staff in the next year.
  • Download or order campaign materials: http://www.ucu.org.uk/socc_materials
  • Tell us what you’re doing for casualised staff – we know there’s lots of good work going on out there. Email what you’re doing to: anticasualisation@ucu.org.uk

Keep up to date with UCU’s campaigning on casualisation

Follow us on Twitter at @UCUAnti_Cas
Join the Anti-casualisation email network:http://www.ucu.org.uk/elists