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Covid-19

Covid-19 update: what is happening in your workplace?

31 March 2020

As the coronavirus outbreak develops, we have been trying to gather as much information we can from all parts of the union about how it is affecting your daily working lives. The general uncertainty about the future and the lack of clarity in much of the government's advice means that different sectors and employers are responding in different ways. Some employers are listening to their UCU branches and recognising the difficulties this situation presents for staff - but many are not. 

In addition to our general guidance for members, we have now published a detailed guidance document for UCU branches on how to engage with employers and ensure that any new working arrangements and other measures protect staff and respect their rights. We will continue to update this advice when necessary and provide support for branches with any specific local challenges they face. 

Protecting precarious workers - more information 

One of the concerns we've seen raised very frequently by members and branches is the status of staff on fixed-term and other insecure contracts. The increasing precarity of employment conditions in tertiary education has been highlighted and compounded by this crisis.

Some employers are taking the welcome step of providing assurances to casualised members of staff, but others have redundancy programmes underway and more seem likely to follow. This is deeply unfair, given the efforts which all staff are making to continue to support students and keep institutions functioning - but it is also unnecessary. Employers' funding sources in the sectors we represent have not been directly affected by the current crisis and it is too soon to know what will happen in the longer term. 

Even if employers do struggle to cover staff wages, they may be able to fall back on the government's job retention scheme as a last resort. We have just issued guidance for members and branches on the job retention scheme which you can read here in addition to our web page detailing the other steps we have been taking to protect precarious workers.

Our recent campaigning efforts have made the precarity of working in tertiary education more visible than ever, so we need to take this opportunity to emphasise the value and safety provided by more secure conditions. I have emphasised this in joint work with other unions which we have been doing during this crisis and in conversations with government ministers and officials. Branches will be doing everything they can to stand up for precariously employed staff and the union as a whole is supporting them in their efforts. 

Equality and health & safety concerns 

We also have to recognise that the pandemic is affecting different groups of staff in different ways. We expect employers to accommodate and make adjustments for staff (especially those with caring responsibilities and disabled staff), recognising that it may not be possible to undertake a 'normal' workload during this extraordinary period. This is reflected in our guidance for branches; our advice to members on working from home and online teaching; and the guidance which we have produced for disabled members and on looking after your mental health. If staff are going to work with employers to respond to this crisis, it cannot come at the expense of their rights or the wellbeing of those who are particularly vulnerable. 

How is work changing for you? New surveys coming soon 

Finally, we are looking to learn as much as we can directly from staff in all the sectors we represent about how your working conditions are changing and the challenges you are facing as a result. We have already undertaken a survey of our members in prison education, which generated a huge number of responses and helped us make a successful case for ending face to face activities in the sector. We are now planning to launch similar surveys in the other sectors we represent. The more information we can get, the more we can do to represent you and highlight issues which your employers need to fix. In the meantime, please contact me with your questions and I will do my best to address them in future emails. 

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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