It's a cruel yule for manual workers

December 24, 2004

Christmas is no fun for cleaners. "Our members face an extra workload at this time of year, especially the staff who have to clean up after office parties," said Chris Kaufman, national secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union.

Workload, hours, pay and conditions are all burning issues of discussion among manual staff this Christmas as universities slowly implement the pay framework agreed this year by unions and employers. But the implications for porters, cleaners, cooks and security staff are still not clear.

"We cannot afford to get it wrong," Tony Hayes, TGWU representative for Liverpool Hope University, said. "If you get an annual pay deal wrong, you can console yourself with the thought that you'll push for more next year.

With this pay spine and framework, if we get it wrong now, we consign our members to it for the next 20 years."

It is a grey day in December and about 20 TGWU university conveners have assembled in the union's London headquarters to discuss concerns about the framework. The Scottish contingent has come in force and is particularly worried that some Scottish universities are excluding them from talks on job evaluations. These are a pivotal part of the pay agreement. All university jobs are to be evaluated and then put on a new pay spine that runs from porter to professor.

Mr Kaufman, co-chair of the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) - an umbrella body that brings together employers and trade unions - is adamant that unions must be involved in the process of implementing the agreement.

"The Scottish funding council is clear that funding for this is dependent on working in partnership with unions," he said.

Nationally, the union is finding huge variations between human resources departments. He said: "Some departments are far ahead of others."

Another crucial issue is working hours. "This could be a real bone of contention next year," Mr Kaufman said. Under the agreement, working hours are to be reduced from 39 to 37 in new universities and from 38 to 36.5 in the old institutions. This harmonisation will take effect as soon as possible and no later than August 2005.

Marg Longman, convener at Bristol University, said: "In the past, different unions negotiated different hours for their members, so we are negotiating with other unions as well as the university."

Some universities are telling union officials that if members' hours are reduced then, as they are paid by the hour, their pay will also be cut. But Mr Kaufman was adamant: "The workload is the same. This should be covered by taking on more staff or overtime."

For all the difficulties, he was clear that the agreement is worth fighting for. "This framework and pay spine give our members a chance to escape the low-pay ghetto," he said.

The deal will also help to increase pay, Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and co-chair of JNCHES, points out. "We have sought to increase salaries at the bottom end of the pay scale first, then those higher up the scale. We are trying to close the gap," he said.

The lowest point on the new pay spine rose to £10,560 last August.

"(It's) still buttons," as Dougie Wright, convener for Warwick University puts it.

There is also the issue of how staff are treated. "We get the feeling that members of the AUT (Association of University Teachers) don't like sitting round the table with us," one Scottish convener said.

But Ms Longman leapt to the defence of her local AUT. "We sit round the table together and the AUT is very supportive," she said.

Mr Kaufman was also concerned that universities are not doing enough to encourage learning and training among their manual workers. "Given that they are seats of learning, this is a disgrace," he said.

Professor Copland countered: "A number of universities do have initiatives in place. At Westminster, we have targeted resources at manual staff to enable them to take up new learning opportunities. They are relieved from work for an hour and, as a result, two staff have moved from their jobs into administration."

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

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