Unions fight use of private contractors

September 7, 2001

Universities and schools are pushing London manual workers into poverty as they farm out services to private-sector partners who drive down pay and impose poorer conditions, according to research by Unison.

The union delivered the warning on the eve of the Trades Union Congress in Brighton this week, where union leaders are expected to savage the government's plans to increase the private sector's role in delivering public services.

"The study shows just what a vicious downward spiral into poverty is caused by privatisation and private companies driving down pay and conditions to boost profits," said general secretary Dave Prentis, a fierce critic of moves to boost private-public partnerships in education.

The research - by Queen Mary, University of London and the East London Communities Organisation, a consortium of more than 40 local institutions that is campaigning for a minimum "living wage" of £6.30 an hour - warned that pay, already well below this level, is being driven down by privatisation in education, the health service, local government and transport.

The report also examines the conditions of workers at the University of East London, where security and cleaning services have been contracted out, and at Queen Mary, where ground staff have been moved to private-sector contracts.

The report says that although it is harder to "disentangle" the picture in universities, researchers identified a routine worsening of terms and conditions where services had been put in the hands of private contractors.

A motion for the TUC agreed last week by 19 unions, and backed by higher education unions, expressed widespread opposition to any extension of private involvement in public services, including education.

A separate motion from lecturers' union Natfhe makes clear that the university, college and adult education sectors should be seen "as part of the public service", which should not be "mortgaged to the private sector" and for which the government must take prime responsibility.

An emergency motion from Natfhe will also call on the TUC to step up pressure on the government for an urgent review of student finance.

  • Newcastle University contracted out its campus catering three years ago but this summer the deal was ended abruptly, writes Alison Utley.

A university spokesman said the future of the catering service was still under review but stressed there had been no compulsory redundancies as a result of the termination of contract.

"The university's core business is education and research, not catering, so we decided to contract out this function to a well-established firm," the spokesman said. "However, over that period the patterns of demand have changed and the decision was reversed."

Unison had opposed the privatisation and says at least ten jobs have now been lost as a result.

The union said university employees were protected under employment law from any worsening of their pay, but new staff were engaged on lower rates of pay.

"This has led to a two-tier workforce," said John Slater of Unison.

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