12 Days Remaining

Monday 12th
posted by Morning Star in Features

From Sports Direct workers to university staff, too many people are trapped on low-paid and insecure zero-hours contracts, writes VICKY KNIGHT

FOLLOWING the chaotic and divisive EU referendum vote, we have seen huge political upheaval and remain gripped by the uncertainty of what happens next.

In this strange new world we inhabit, the Tories have managed to drag themselves out of the Brexit mire and are doing acceptably in the polls, while another divisive battle — to lead the Labour Party — feels like it has been going on for longer than the EU referendum.

While that particular sideshow will come to an end later this month, the country needs her majesty’s official opposition to get back to playing its key role of properly scrutinising this government’s actions and making the case for positive alternatives, something union members will be doing in Brighton at TUC Congress this week.

The EU referendum debate was particularly nasty and while we are still not clear on what process will be followed or exactly what happens next, we cannot ignore the impact of the decision on workers or wider society.

The number of hate crimes recorded for the last two weeks of June spiked by 42 per cent on the same time last year.

A total of 3,076 incidents were recorded across the country between June 16-30. The biggest number was on June 25, the day after the EU referendum result.

The rise in such offences is the worrying consequence of the type of anti-immigration, anti-refugee and xenophobic language we have seen in recent months.

With politicians not prepared to defend the proud economic and social record of migrants and a Prime Minister prepared to use EU nationals as pawns in Brexit negotiations, the duty falls on trade unions to defend the contribution of migrants and refugees, something my union — the University and College Union — will certainly be doing in a motion defending the rights of migrant workers and refugees.

As ever, the TUC agenda reflects the numerous problems that working people in Britain face today.

Mike Ashley’s embarrassing performance when finally summoned in front of the select committee, and the good work from Unite to expose the pernicious practices at Sports Direct, have helped shine a much-needed light on the precarious nature of the contracts too many people in this country are subjected to.

What is still largely unrecognised is the high numbers of staff in our universities and colleges who are on these types of casual contracts, including zero-hours contracts.

A report released by UCU in April found that almost half (49 per cent) of teaching staff in UK universities and one-third (34 per cent) in colleges are employed on insecure contracts.

In January, UCU wrote to every university and college asking them to confirm their willingness to eradicate zero-hours contracts and conduct a joint review with the union on the use of insecure contracts at their institution. Just one in five universities and 14 per cent of colleges responded positively.

Tackling the blight of casualisation in post-16 education is a key plank of UCU’s current pay dispute, as is addressing the gender pay gap.

There is an average gender pay gap of 12.6 per cent in UK universities, a difference between men and women of £6,103 per year.

The situation in further education colleges is not quite as severe, but in 24 colleges the gap is greater than 5 per cent and in the 10 worst cases the gap is at least 8 per cent.

Someone’s ability to do a good job is compromised if they are poorly paid or on an insecure contract.

Too many staff have poor access to basic equipment and facilities, can only get their job done by putting in unpaid hours, and are constantly stressed about making ends meet and the future availability of work.
For all the talk about improving standards in education, and to only allow universities to increase fees if they meet certain targets, the simple truth is that unless employers and government address the issues with pay and conditions then they risk undermining our education system.

During the education debate at TUC this week we will be making the case for an alternative vision for post-16 education based not on academisation and privatisation, but on schools and colleges as community-based institutions funded to meet the full range of education and training needs of those communities they serve.

We will also be urging delegates and unions to support our joint national demonstration with the National Union of Students on Saturday November 19 in defence of education.

The central London protest — United for Education — will represent a rallying call for free, accessible and quality further and higher education across the UK, and to demand an end to the marketisation of university and college education.

With co-ordinated demonstrations due to take place in numerous countries around the world, including Canada, France and South Africa, the demonstration will also represent a call for international solidarity and opposition to all forms of racism and xenophobia.

Students and lecturers in Britain in particular will be calling for the government to ensure that universities and colleges remain open, international and diverse following the Brexit vote.
Vicky Knight is vice-president of the University and College Union.