Academics on zero-hours contracts have been driven to go “bin diving” for food because they are struggling to make ends meet, the University and College Union’s congress has heard.
Liza van Zyl, retention officer at Cardiff University, told delegates in Brighton that she had been astonished by the number of hourly paid lecturers who had asked her if they could take part in “food-scavenging workshops” advertised on campus.
Speaking on 29 May, Ms van Zyl said the popularity of classes on how to look through supermarket bins highlights the “gross misuse of zero-hours contract staff, which is driving people into destitution”.
“In a Russell Group university, our colleagues are not earning enough to live,” she added.
The issue of lecturers on zero-hours contracts, who are not guaranteed a fixed number of working hours per week, was a major topic of conversation at the congress, which ran from 29 to 31 May.
Mike Cushman, research fellow at the London School of Economics’ department of management, said there was a growing number of research staff on zero-hours contracts, with many not even realising that they were on terms that did not guarantee fixed incomes.
“One researcher had a contract he thought was worth £5,000, but…was only paid £500,” he said.
The same researcher had been unable to get a mortgage because his contract was essentially worthless, Mr Cushman added.
“This is a serious researcher with a PhD who is down on band 2 on the income [scale],” he said, referring to the salary of less than £14,000 a year received by his colleague.
Delegates passed a motion proposed by Vicky Blake, head of the UCU’s anti- casualisation committee, which demanded that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association collect data on how many higher education staff are on zero-hours contracts.
There are currently 82,000 workers on “atypical” contracts in the sector, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency figures, but more data are needed, said Ms Blake, who works part-time at the University of Leeds and Durham University.
For many on zero-hours contracts, life meant “insecurity, instability, hunger, loss of work, no sick pay and working from the boot of your car, if you are lucky enough to be able to afford to run one”, she told delegates.
Ms Blake told Times Higher Education that casualised hours were forcing many academics to quit.
“It’s not because they are not good enough or don’t have good ideas,” she said. “They are fed up with simply surviving financially, which inevitably interferes with their ability to do their studies.”
Hourly paid staff were often not given the respect granted to those in full-time posts, Ms Blake added.
“I have been told off for using the same toilets as ‘members of staff’,” she said.
More information on the extent of the problem was required because many hourly paid staff did not realise that they were on zero-hours contracts and were being forced into accepting any offer of academic work.
“People are made to feel grateful for their exploitation,” she said.