Union goes to European Commission in legal fight over contracts at universities and colleges

5 August 2013 | last updated: 10 December 2015

UCU is taking its fight to protect workers on fixed-term contracts to the European Commission. The union today presented a complaint to the Commission that says recent change to employment law contravenes the requirement on EU members not to discriminate against workers on the grounds of their fixed-term employment status.

Following the change, trade unions no longer have the legal right to be consulted about widespread redundancies of staff who happen to be on fixed-term contracts - in further and higher education that can be staff with many years' service. Previously, employers had to count all staff and engage in a 90-day consultation period with trade unions if they planned to get rid of more than 20 people.

The union says the change discriminates against workers on fixed-term contracts as their employers no longer have to consult with trade unions if they are intending to let them go. UCU added that it also makes it more likely that it is fixed-term workers who will face losing their jobs if an institution seeks to cut staff.

The union was particularly disappointed to learn some that universities actively lobbied the government for the changes to be brought in and said both they and colleges should now do the decent and pragmatic thing and commit to consulting with the union over any changes to staffing arrangements. 

More than a third of the academic workforce in universities is now on temporary, fixed-term contracts. The number of teaching-only staff on temporary contracts went up by a third between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

In the same period in further education (between 2009-10 and 2011-12), the percentage of teaching staff on fixed-term contracts shot up from 30% to 42%.

The union has written to the employers' organisations for both universities and colleges and asked them to work with the union to get colleges and universities to sign up to agreements that they will still consult properly.

UCU head of higher education, Michael MacNeil, said: 'It is really disappointing that some universities, who consider themselves to be enlightened, were lobbying behind the scenes to take workers' rights back to the Dark Ages. We have put universities on notice that we will continue to pursue the matter legally and they should now do the pragmatic and decent thing and continue to consult with us. Good employers should recognise that it makes sense to treat staff properly.

'The government has made these changes at a time when we have seen an increase in people who are on fixed-term contracts. We believe this will lead to clear discrimination against workers on fixed-term contracts and are taking our case to the European Commission.'

UCU head of further education, Barry Lovejoy, said: In the further education sector in England we have an excellent national agreement on redundancy avoidance which stresses the advantages of early consultation with trade unions on all threatened job losses. Sadly, the employers' representatives are seeking to water down the agreement in response to what we see as an unlawful and discriminatory step by the government.

'Collective consultation ensures the full picture is considered in an institution regarding opportunities to avoid redundancies. Without proper consultation fixed-term workers are left with only individual representation. I would urge the employers to think again on this and avoid any legal consequences.'

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