University and College Union officials have lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission, saying scrapping a requirement to have redundancy consultations over the loss of staff on temporary contracts is unlawful because it discriminates against workers on the grounds of their fixed-term status.
Before 6 April 2013, employers had to include all staff in a 90-day consultation period with trade unions if they planned to make more than 20 people redundant.
But universities were accused of lobbying the government to change the rules, claiming the high turnover of academic staff on fixed-term contracts with differing end dates meant that they needed to be in “near-constant consultation” to comply with employment law.
Universities are no longer required to consult staff about large-scale redundancies of staff on fixed-term contracts, the UCU says, despite them often having many years of service behind them.
About a third of all academic staff – 60,320 out of 181,185 staff in 2010-11 – are on fixed-term contracts, while the number of teaching staff in further education on temporary contracts has risen from 30 per cent in 2009-10 to 42 per cent in 2011-12.
“It is really disappointing that some universities, who consider themselves to be enlightened, were lobbying behind the scenes to take workers’ rights back to the Dark Ages,” said Michael MacNeil, head of higher education at UCU, who has called on institutions to continue consultations.
“We have put universities on notice that we will continue to pursue the matter legally and they should now do the pragmatic and decent thing and continue to consult with us,” he said.
Removing the right for consultation over redundancies was particularly misguided when the number of people on fixed-term contracts was increasing, Mr MacNeil added.
“We believe this will lead to clear discrimination against workers on fixed-term contracts and are taking our case to the European Commission.”
The government has claimed the new legislation was only needed to clarify existing redundancy processes, which do not require employers to consult with staff coming to the end of fixed-term contracts.