Part-timers merit equality

June 2, 2006

Work practices were key issues at Natfhe's final conference. Phil Baty reports.

The fight against the "disgusting exploitation" of part-time and hourly paid lecturers will be a key priority of the newly merged University and College Union, grassroots members agreed this week.

At their last ever conference before this week's formal merger with the Association of University Teachers, lecturers' union Natfhe activists agreed to put the campaign against casualisation in universities at the heart of the new union.

Delegates in Blackpool carried two policy motions and agreed to step up efforts in this area.

The motions were passed, as it emerged that Sue Birch, the Leeds Metropolitan University lecturer who won a landmark legal case on the rights of part-time staff, is facing possible redundancy now that she has been made a full-time senior lecturer.

Speaking for the motion that the UCU should "redouble efforts" to secure equality for casualised staff, Greg Barnett, of London Metropolitan University, said it was a "sadly familiar" motion.

He described casualisation as "the straightforward, disgusting exploitation of staff", adding that it remained a "dramatic problem" in universities.

Just over 66,000 academics - 45 per cent of the total - were on fixed-term contracts in 2003-04, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The Times Higher reported last week that staff believe that universities are not doing enough to comply with European Union employment laws that come into effect in July. The EU laws oblige universities to move fixed-term staff to a permanent contract after four years of continual service.

Some universities were trying to pervert the new rules by introducing breaks in lecturers' employment, it was claimed.

The London region motion called on the UCU to "secure full pro rata fractional appointments for all hourly paid lecturers who want them and to oppose any attempts by employers to side-step the issue by redefining work of hourly paid lecturers or attempting the introduction of zero hours teaching-only contracts".

Mr Barnett said that - through "bloody minded stubbornness" or by "adopting the ostrich position" - vice-chancellors were ignoring the issue.

A second motion, from Natfhe's Southern region, warned that "the abuse of part-time, hourly paid staff as cheap, casualised labour without access to nationally negotiated conditions of service continues".

Ms Birch, attending her first Natfhe conference since she became a cause célèbre for part-timers, explained to delegates how she had won her case under the Part-time Work (less favourable treatment) Regulations 2000.

She was moved to a full-time post and given £25,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement after a tribunal established that she had worked longer hours for less pay than an equivalent full-time member of staff; the tribunal also ruled that she was entitled to equal treatment.

She said: "Now that I am on a full-time contract, the difference is incredible. The 2000 directive is very clear that part-time staff have equal rights and the rules are there in black and white. If you are challenging management, stick with it and stand firm."

But she told the conference that after just three pay cheques as a full-time member of staff, she now faced the threat of redundancy.

Of 20 full-time staff in her School of Languages, she said, nine people would be made redundant.

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