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There is in this country a crisis of employment. When the Government talk about more people being employed in this country it’s a rather deceptive fact that contorts the real situation many people face. They ignore the fact that it’s not that people are registered as having a job, but it’s rather the quality and security of the job that matter. One of the roots of this fallacy is Zero Hour Contracts. They allow people to remain registered to a company, sometimes prohibited from seeking work anywhere else, without the guarantee of any hours and consequently any pay. They are as Unite Leader Len McCluskey described “creating a sub-class of insecure and low-paid employment”. Half of universities and two thirds of further education colleges use zero hour contracts and Lancaster’s 10th place finish in the Zero Hour Contract League Table should been a huge wake up call for the people handing these out.
In September this year the Unite union published their research and found that 36% of people on Zero Hour contracts received no holiday pay and furthermore 76% received no sick pay either. When you consider this, it’s hard to see Zero Hour contracts as little more than an excuse to dodge both of these hard-won workers’ rights. These contracts are regular practice at companies like Sports Direct, Burger King and Boots and we should ask ourselves, do we want our universities run like profit-making companies or should their first priority be looking after both staff and students? Many postgraduate staff, particularly unfunded students, on Zero Hour Contracts rely heavily on the money they receive from their employment, which can be their only source of income while studying themselves. Instead they are offered insecurity and unpredictability with their income while they provide an invaluable service for us throughout the year.
There are examples when Zero Hour Contracts can be a good thing. Students who work in LUSU are on Zero Hours contracts. This gives them the flexibility to bend their work around their studies and the ability to choose to work even less hours during times when work is piling up, without the fear of repercussions from their employers. However, as Simon Renton, President of the University and College Union says, “Flexibility for a few is no defence against the exploitation of many other workers”. The rest of the people on Zero Hour Contracts can be postgraduate students, visiting staff and anyone else desperate enough for work experience and money that they sign a contract which doesn’t guarantee them any hours but can also prohibit them from taking on any other paid work, which Zero Hour contracts have been known to do.
At the end of the last academic year the university said that all its staff were going to be paid at least the Living Wage and it was a commendable decision. It meant that cleaners, porters and any others workers in campus were going to be paid a wage that would give them security and comfort which is the least they deserve from this university. Now the university should act to give similar security to the young academic staff, without whom our essays would go unmarked, seminars untaught and general university experienced worsened.
Edinburgh University came in for heavy criticism this summer for topping the table of Zero Hour contracts and the fact that they so quickly banned them suggests that universities can too show the flexibility that they demand from their employees. Lancaster should follow suit and help some it’s 747 staff suffering from economic uncertainty. It’s a simple choice, between whether the University want to be a benevolent employer or whether it wants be in the same ranks as some of the most manipulative companies in the country. Lancaster University should begin to disassociate itself with this exploitative practice and take steps to ban the use of Zero Hour contracts.