It’s casual, and that’s a problem

Zero-hours contracts make staff feel anxious and ill-used; they must be tackled as the sector seeks a sustainable future

March 13, 2014

It’s striking how often “official” statistics change overnight after some revision of the way data are collected or crunched.

The effect can be to undermine the figures: one wonders how much faith students have in the government’s estimate of the graduate premium, which last year doubled from £100,000 to £200,000, while its estimate of the proportion of tuition fee loans that will never be repaid has been Michael Fish-esque.

Another area in which there is little statistical clarity is on the number of zero-hours contracts: those that give no guarantees about a person’s working hours or earnings.

This week, the Office for National Statistics released revised figures suggesting that across all sectors 582,935 workers were employed on zero-hours terms in 2013, more than double the previous estimate.

Staff say they stay afloat only because a spouse has a ‘proper job’; others tell of academics with a full-time workload earning half the salary of tenured peers

Others claim that the figure could be higher still (in the millions, some say), while the ONS has urged caution in the use of this week’s data (released, it says, in response to an “ad hoc” query) and promised to release “more reliable” figures next month.

The problem is that the definitions and reporting are not straightforward – for example, some employers who participate in the Labour Force Survey simply have not been familiar with the term “zero hours”.

The same applies in higher education, with one employee telling us in our cover feature that he discovered he was “zero-hours” only after five years in his job, when his hours plummeted. “I would say I was fairly typical in not knowing what zero-hours meant, as it’s only in the past six months or so that anybody has talked about the issue,” he said.

The argument about zero-hours contracts polarises into the union line that hordes of staff are unloved, overlooked and, in any given week, unpaid, and the employers’ claim that such contracts are rare, and that when they are used it is in reasonable circumstances, such as for genuinely fitful roles such as student ambassadors or specialist demonstrators.

While it is likely that there are situations when a zero-hours contract is not only acceptable but beneficial to employer and employee both, the examples in our feature do not fall into the parameters outlined by the employers.

We hear from teaching staff who say they stay afloat financially only because a spouse has a “proper job”, who tell tales of academics with a full-time workload earning half the salary of tenured peers, and of legal loopholes that mean protections for those on fractional contracts pass them by.

These are only a few examples, but whatever the truth of the national statistics, cases such as these are major problems not only for the individuals involved, but for higher education too, as it seeks a financially sustainable future while carrying its staff with it.

The Treasury may still regard universities as awash with cash, but with tuition fee income being eroded by inflation, the threat of the unit of resource shrinking as student numbers rise (and what remains of the teaching grant stays the same) and the revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme looming like an anvil hanging on a frayed rope, the financial pressures are very real.

The danger is that this translates into yet further casualisation of the workforce, and more people falling into the position of those we speak to this week.

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