Zero hours, infinite anxiety

The perils of life on a contract with no guarantee of work

March 13, 2014

Source: Getty

Zero-hours employees get the work on patronage and it’s clear that you can be dropped if you cause a fuss

“Most people look forward to pay day – I used to dread it,” recalls Louise Webb of her six years spent working as an associate lecturer on a zero-hours contract. “Sometimes you’d get nothing, other times it would be fine – it was like a lottery.”

Webb worked on the contract at Sheffield Hallam University from 2006 to 2012, teaching project management. She has since found a permanent post as a senior tutor in project management at the University of Bedfordshire.

“Not knowing if you’ll be paid from one month to the next is a horrible situation. It plays havoc with your mental health as you have no way of telling if you have enough money to pay the bills or not,” she says.

Such tales of uncertain hours have been likened to the times when labourers would stand at the factory gates waiting to be picked for a day’s work, grateful for a shift or two and unable to complain about exploitation.

The use of zero-hours contracts, under which an employee is not guaranteed work by their employer, hit the national news last summer amid claims that as many as 1 million people in the UK could be working on them.

But while stories about the widespread use of such contracts by companies such as Sports Direct grabbed many of the national headlines, their use is not limited to low-skilled jobs such as shop assistant or office cleaner: many academics and highly skilled university staff are also part of the so-called “precariat”.

No official figures on zero-hours contracts are collected for the higher education sector, but a survey of 162 institutions by the University and College Union conducted in July 2013 (142 responded) found that more than 24,000 academics and other university staff were employed on zero-hours deals.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency does collect information, however, on a wider group of staff on “atypical contracts”. These are defined by Hesa as “those with working arrangements that are not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider. These may be characterised by a high degree of flexibility for both the work provider and the working person.”

In the 2012-13 academic year, Hesa figures show that 74,075 staff were employed by institutions on atypical academic contracts, and a further 36,495 on similar non-academic contracts. This is about 22 per cent of all staff employed in the sector.

Unions say these data highlight the hidden army of casualised workers employed in the academy, but universities insist that flexible-terms contracts allow for many positive arrangements, accommodating skilled professionals who move between industry and the classroom, or lecturers who hold more substantive jobs outside academia.

Staff who spoke to Times Higher Education, however, paint a less positive picture. Some say they have been stuck on such contracts for years, doing the same work as permanent staff but without the same pay, perks or employment rights.

“I was doing more hours than a full-time job,” explains Webb, who clocked about 800 student contact hours in one year. The UCU advises that full-time staff should not teach more than 462 hours a year.

“It’s certainly not a case of zero-hours staff plugging holes or filling in occasionally,” she adds.

Those hours did not include time spent in assessment moderation meetings, which could last for hours, says Webb, but she felt unable to complain about such arrangements for fear of angering the management.

“Zero-hours [employees] get the work on patronage and it’s clear that you can be dropped if you cause a fuss,” she says. “People just accepted what they were told because if you put your head above the parapet, it would get shot off.”

This reluctance to complain extends to basic issues such as being paid on time, says Webb, who worked for 20 years in IT project management before she began teaching in higher education.

“I have done contract work before so I understand the nature of hourly paid work, but sometimes you would only get paid in October for work you’d done in May,” she says. “I was lucky because my husband had a ‘proper’ job, so I managed, but I would say that that situation was pretty endemic for casualised staff.”

The short notice given to staff regarding their forthcoming hours is another significant problem of zero-hours contracts, according to Christina Paine, lecturer in music and music technology at London Metropolitan University, who is also a UCU case worker for hourly paid lecturers.

“Employers are supposed to give 30 days’ notice that your hours are going to be changed, but that rarely happens,” Paine maintains. She estimates that almost half the teaching staff at London Met are hourly paid.

UCU believes that this estimate is typical of the entire sector when it comes to those on “teaching-only” deals.

The lack of advance warning “causes huge problems if you have to pay your mortgage, and lots of hourly paid staff are working two or three jobs, perhaps running their own business or working in a cafe, to pay the bills”, Paine adds.

Both London Met and Sheffield Hallam told THE that they gave staff extensive notice regarding teaching hours, with the former saying it gave at least a month’s warning, while the latter said working hours were agreed for “at least a full semester if not the full year”.

London Met chose not to comment on the proportion of staff on zero-hours contracts, but a spokesman says the university “employs a number of hourly paid lecturers on variable contracts”.

“We find that many academics appreciate the flexibility offered by these arrangements, which [are compatible] with childcare or other employment commitments,” he adds.

Sheffield Hallam added that zero-hours staff had the same rights to leave, sick pay and pensions as permanent staff.

What about the issue of pay? Paine believes that experienced staff on zero-hours contracts at London higher education institutions are earning far less than their permanent colleagues.

“I’ve been told about one hourly paid academic who taught a full workload, but they ended up earning about £22,000 a year when someone doing the same work with the same experience was on a senior lecturer’s salary of £55,000,” she says.

Some might assume that lecturers working lengthy hours, year after year, gain certain statutory employment rights, such as enhanced sickness pay, as guaranteed by European law. But such regulations, which mean that staff who work on a fixed-term contract for four or more years gain a fractional, long-term deal, do not apply to zero-hours staff owing to the variation in hours, Paine says. “It’s actually quite hard to get eight weeks of continuous work and that is what is needed to be included in the fractional contract rules. And, of course, you cannot get promoted as there is no pay spine – there is no such title as ‘senior hourly paid lecturer’.”

The last-minute allocation of work makes planning extremely difficult. Paine argues that this can affect the quality of teaching. “Last week I was given two modules to teach and I’ll do my best to teach them, but I would rather be given time to prepare them properly,” she explains. “Hourly paid staff have the same commitment and aspirations to do a good job for our students, but it’s much more difficult to deliver the teaching, and I think it’s really detrimental to our students.”

Similar frustrations were voiced by a lecturer on a zero-hours contract at the University of Sussex, who asked to not be named.

She says that teaching assignments are often allocated just a couple of weeks before teaching starts and sometimes as late as a few days before term begins.

“I was, in theory, able to decline the extra hours, but I need the money and am conscious of the fact that ‘flexibility’ will be taken into consideration when teaching allocations are made in the future,” she says, adding that “clearly, these conditions are exploitative and rely on workers’ desperation”.

The Sussex lecturer says that her department is extremely reliant on hourly paid staff, with all the seminar groups for some modules taken by casually employed tutors.

People balancing on clock scales (illustration)

Without a guaranteed income, workers on zero-hours contracts are unable to make financial or employment plans on a year-to-year, or even month-to-month, basis

“My university often claims that casual staff are employed to accommodate fluctuations in student recruitment and demand for modules, but the amount of undergraduate teaching doesn’t vary that much from year to year,” she asserts.

“In reality, my department needs more full-time teaching staff, but the university is clearly loath to employ staff on contracts that entitle them to proper salaries and benefits when they can employ a large workforce of willing and qualified expendable labour.”

A spokeswoman for Sussex says that only a “small proportion” of teaching on campus is delivered by staff on zero-hours contacts.

“The university has over 2,000 staff and teaching delivered by PhD students or other associate tutors is equivalent to just over 100 full-time [staff] a year,” she says.

Associate tutors “are properly graded roles and rates of pay are equivalent to £23,000 to £30,000 a year, depending on experience” and such staff “know well in advance, [either] at the start of each term or each academic year the teaching times and duties that they will be undertaking”, she adds.

The arrangements also allow research students access to income and teaching experience, while contracts providing holiday, sick leave and other on-campus benefits were agreed with unions in 2006, she adds.

But the Sussex lecturer says the rise of the zero-hours contract has created “two-tier” staffing. “This divide is largely along generational lines, with many younger scholars stuck on the lower tier.

“My employer and senior colleagues are often guilty of treating me and other zero-hours staff like professionals with expertise when it suits them and as expendable labour when it does not.”

It is not only younger staff, though, who find themselves on perilous temporary contracts that pay them per class taught.

“Being paid ‘per class’ with no time for prep, admin, marking means you can’t do it properly without effectively being paid less than the minimum wage,” says one philosophy tutor (who also asked to remain anonymous) at a University of Oxford college. She reveals she is paid £15.40 per lesson.

“I am 57, have four degrees, have worked at three world-class universities, but earned about £500 for 36 hours of classes,” she adds.

Other issues compound the sense of unfairness, such as being denied a pass to the senior common room, an office or even space to teach, she says.

“A friend of mine used to teach his tutorials in the pub because the college did not give him any space to teach – until, after four years of doing this, the pub got annoyed and chucked him out.”

She believes that this isolation helps to explain what she sees as a lack of resistance to the terms offered by universities.

“It’s hard to build up a network of colleagues and work acquaintances…so many people get used to thinking that it’s fine to be paid £12,000 or £14,000 a year,” she explains. “They don’t even realise there’s something odd about it.”

Some employees do not even realise that they are on a zero-hours contract, says Philip Roddis, a study adviser at Sheffield Hallam University. He says that he only discovered he had signed a zero-hours deal in 2006 when his hours dropped significantly in 2011.

“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 really talked about the issue,” he argues.

“No one explained what zero-hours meant and when you receive those documents in the post with your first contract, your eyes go to [the sections] that tell you how much you’ll be paid and what your hours are.”

Roddis made an unsuccessful attempt to take his university to an employment tribunal and feels the legislation should be changed to give long-serving staff some protection. “It seems as though there is a huge hole in the bucket when it comes to employment protection – these zero-hours deals aren’t really contracts, more offers of work,” he adds.

One reason for the existence of such contracts is that there have been few financial incentives for institutions to invest in excellent teaching, believes David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies.

“It is to do with reducing costs and also decreasing the time spent teaching by full-time faculty, who then get diverted towards the cash and kudos of research,” he insists, although he believes that the introduction of £9,000 fees may begin to change the situation.

“Teaching has no status and little value in rankings, but thankfully it is gaining ground because fee-paying student consumers are challenging its egregious neglect in places where research is prioritised,” he argues.

Although staff who spoke to THE said they felt exploited and the UCU believes that the use of zero-hours contracts is widespread, the organisation representing employers in higher education takes a very different view.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association asserts that zero-hours contracts are “not widely used in higher education” and it has begun to collect data on how many zero-hours staff work in higher education.

As for the number of “atypical staff” working in the sector, it says that on a full-time equivalent basis, they account for only 4 per cent of staff in higher education.

Ucea claims that Hesa’s data includes double counting of staff engaged more than once in a year and does not take into account the fact that zero-hours staff often teach only a few hours a week. A spokesman for Ucea says that most higher education institutions use “hours to be notified” contracts only for posts with genuinely unpredictable work such as specialist demonstrators, teaching assistants, student ambassadors and event support roles.

“Variable contracts range from those offered to thousands of students signed up for casual work to fit around their studies to highly skilled professionals contributing specialist teaching on specific courses,” he adds.

But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, believes that zero-hours contracts are the “unacceptable underbelly” of further and higher education. Staff working on them are denied full employee status and key employment rights, and “without a guaranteed income, workers on zero-hours contracts are unable to make financial or employment plans on a year-to-year, or even month-to-month, basis”, she says.

With this in mind, UCU is pressing political parties to improve protection for staff on such contracts, while London Met’s Paine believes UCU’s naming and shaming of institutions using zero-hours staff will also force change.

She cites the University of Edinburgh’s pledge to end their use after it was named as the sector’s biggest user of zero-hours staff, employing 2,712 people on these deals in 2012-13.

When the numbers of zero-hours contracts in higher education were published in September, Edinburgh said it was “taking immediate steps to give staff guaranteed hours while working towards increased use of fractional/pro-rata contracts and ceasing the use of hours-to-be-notified contracts”.

It said it was committed to supporting postgraduate students through part-time work and acknowledged that it employed “significant numbers of staff on an ‘hours to be notified’ basis in teaching support, conference services and other roles”, although it said that no more than 5 per cent of work in the university was paid in this way.

“The Edinburgh victory shows that we can change things in people’s workplaces,” Paine says.

Man viewing clock through telescope (illustration)

Zero-sum game: instability rules

Staff who spoke to Times Higher Education highlighted examples of what they believe to be exploitative employment practice in higher education.

“Last term, I was paid for two office hours [per week] when I had roughly 90 students across my classes,” declares one lecturer, who asked to not be identified. “I was also expected to schedule tutorials for every student twice in the term. This would be burdensome for a full-time faculty member, let alone a casually employed one.”

Another academic says: “Our school employs teaching assistants for small-group teaching, but these posts must never pay more than £5,000 a year. This is so that the university doesn’t have to give them the full range of benefits that come with higher-paid positions.

“It means instability and poor conditions for the teaching assistants, who are juggling several jobs across the university and outside it, but it also makes it very difficult for us to use talented and trained members of staff as they are severely limited in their hours.

“It also means that the university employs a higher number of staff so we end up having to find and train a lot of new members of staff, which increases our workload and potentially decreases quality.”

We’ll let you know: a world of welcome flexibility - or fertile territory for employer abuse?

While there is no single definition of a “zero-hours contract”, they are generally understood as contracts under which employees have no guaranteed hours of work and are paid only for work carried out.

Such “on-call” arrangements have been in existence for many years but the fairness of zero-hours contracts came to wider attention last year amid concerns over their growing prevalence.

According to the Office for National Statistics, about 250,000 people in the final quarter of 2012 were on zero-hours contracts, based on information from the ONS’ Labour Force Survey.

But this figure is likely to understate the true number of people on zero-hours contracts, as many people are unaware of the nature of their contractual arrangements, says a 2013 House of Commons Library report.

Indeed, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has estimated that 3.1 per cent of the UK workforce, or approximately 1 million people, are on such contracts. Unite, drawing on its own surveys, claims the figure could be as high as 5.5 million.

Among the high-profile employers to use zero-hours contracts are Sports Direct, McDonald’s, Burger King, JD Wetherspoon and Buckingham Palace. Business groups such as the Institute of Directors say the deals allow firms to offer occasional or seasonable work to people, such as students or retirees, who appreciate flexible hours.

A CIPD survey of more than 2,500 employees published in November last year found that zero-hours workers were just as satisfied with their job as the average UK employee.

Amid last year’s series of stories about the abuse of zero-hours workers, Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called for zero-hours contracts to be banned.

Party leader Ed Miliband did not go as far, saying that he wanted to outlaw the exploitative use of such contracts, such as contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business and to be on call all day without any guarantee of work.

In December 2013, business secretary Vince Cable ruled out banning zero-hours contracts, saying they offered “welcome flexibility”.

Instead, he said employers should be clearer with their staff about their terms of employment and companies should be barred from having “exclusivity contracts” that stop people working for another firm. Cable has said that there has been “evidence of abuse”.

He also launched a consultation, which closes this week, aimed at exploring possible changes to regulation.

A government survey of businesses published in January 2013, the Workplace Employment Relations Survey, found that the education sector was the sector most likely to use zero-hours contracts after hotels and restaurants and the health sector.

Hidden army: zero-hours staff in 2013

InstitutionZero-hours staff
Source: University and College Union survey conducted in July 2013 using the
Freedom of Information Act. The request was sent to 162 higher education
institutions, of which 142 responded.
* The University of Cambridge figure was obtained through a separate FoI request by Cambridge University Students’ Union.
University of Edinburgh2,712
University of Bath1,596
Plymouth University1,167
City University London1,125
Kingston University1,069
University of Kent960
University of Cambridge*906
University of Sussex896
Royal College of Art777
University of Wolverhampton773
Lancaster University747

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