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Progress on zero-hours and casualisation at Glasgow University

17 March 2015 | last updated: 22 January 2016

UCU and the University of Glasgow have agreed a new policy governing the employment of teaching staff which should rule out the use of zero-hours contracts and put tight limits on the use of casual 'worker' contracts. The university has already all but stopped recruiting to these contracts and is reviewing all its current zero-hours contracts with a view to putting them on more suitable employment contracts.

As reported in Anti-casualisation news at the time, in 2009 the University of Glasgow brought in a new 'atypical workers' policy which was used to employ many graduate teaching assistants. Through this policy the university ended up creating a large casualised teaching contingent on substantively zero-hours contracts: those who were zero-hours contract employees, taken on where there was a long term need but irregular work patterns and 'atypical workers' - non-employees taken on 'where the requirement to undertake work is irregular and occasional' and where, the theory went, the individuals were free to refuse work that was offered. The practical result of this policy was to enable the growth of a significant number of hourly paid teaching staff who have no guaranteed hours. In 2013, Glasgow reported to UCU's FOI request that it employed more than 400 teaching staff on contracts with no guaranteed hours.

As early as 2010, the introduction of this policy led to a series of meetings between teaching assistants and UCU reps to agree a bargaining agenda to win improvements. Negotiations with the employer were, as is so often the case, protracted but when they concluded in December 2014, the result was a significantly improved policy that should stop the downward spiral of casualisation at the university.

If the policy is applied properly, it should ensure that a large number of the people who are engaged in roles as GTAs, tutors or demonstrators are taken on as fixed-term hourly paid or fractional employees rather than casual workers or on zero-hours contracts.

The new 'Extended Workforce' policy contains a greater general commitment to employment contracts in preference to casual worker contracts, stating that 'Where there is a sufficiently meaningful and predictable level of regular work over a given period, the University will typically offer an employment contract which may be fixed-term or permanent open-ended, full or part-time and will provide as much security of employment as possible'. Tight limits are put on when it's possible to use a worker contract: 'the University will only use hourly paid casual worker arrangements in situations in which the requirement to undertake work is irregular and occasional and where it is not possible to predict whether there will be any work and so when and how much'. In the procedural document that details how Casual Workers are to be employed, the point is reiterated that 'if there is some form of predictable ongoing work over a given period it may be more appropriate and mutually beneficial to offer the role on an employment basis with some form of hours commitment, even if there is no predictable work pattern.'

The policy also very tightly limits the circumstances where it's permissible to use zero-hours contracts. New zero-hours contracts 'will only be offered where is it mutually agree that there is a justification for agreeing an employment arrangement but the potential hours are completely unpredictable or very variable'. The university has also placed all existing zero-hours employment contracts under review with a view to transferring them to better contracts.

If the policy is applied properly, it should ensure that a large number of the people who are engaged in roles as GTAs, tutors or Demonstrators are taken on as fixed-term hourly paid or fractional employees rather than casual workers or on zero-hours contracts.

Because policing the implementation of this policy at department level is going to be so important, the union will be provided with information on a regular basis and employment practices will be kept under review. The early signs are positive as the latest figures show that the university has already effectively ceased recruiting to zero-hours contracts in preference for fixed-term contracts.

Glasgow's agreement is a significant step forward and adds to progress already made in Scotland at Edinburgh. In part that's testament to the political leverage UCU has been able to exercise on this issue in Scotland. But it also sends a big message to other universities that like to think of themselves as prestigious that UCU will continue to keep up the pressure on them to climb out of the gutter, abandon these exploitative contracts and start to rebuild their reputations as employers.