The Queen Margaret University UCU branch executive write below about coronavirus and the work they carried out protecting workers in the university employed by outsourced companies.
Unions have had a long history of opposing outsourcing, and the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how important it is for essential services to be provided in- house. Like most universities, Queen Margaret University (QMU) contracts a number of outsourced companies to carry out tasks including catering work, cleaning as well as some of the security and janitorial work essential to the running of the university. As a public, unionised workplace, in-house workers in the university have been treated relatively well in the current crisis and at least will be guaranteed pay for the time being. However the staff delivering essential work in the university, but employed by outsourced companies, are at greater risk.
In the early days of the pandemic, union reps from both UCU and UNISON spoke to staff employed by outsourced companies. Some said they had no idea what’s happening pay wise or for how long they would continue to have work. We have heard from staff on their last paid day before shut-down, on zero-hours contracts despite having worked there for a number of months. We have spoken to staff who believed they were on a zero hour contract whilst another colleague believed themselves to be on a regular contract having been working there for over six months but reported that they still had not seen or signed a contract. Some workers were told they wouldn’t be paid normally if they self-isolated but indicated that their company then changed its mind and told them that they’d just receive statutory sick pay. Not only is this a trade union issue but also a health concern if workers take health risks by coming to work due to fears that they will not be paid. There appeared to be lack of clarity around what would be happening, with workers very unsure about what action to take.
Having heard this UCU and UNISON, who represent staff on the university’s Business Continuity Group, contacted management at QMU and made the point that staff on unstable contracts with limited or no sick pay are very likely to come in if they are ill because they simply cannot afford to and that this risks all staff and service users. This point is something that union reps had been raising for years.
The unions asked for the following written assurances:
- That the outsourced companies are willing to continue to pay all staff employed with contracts regardless of whether they are working, off sick, self-isolating or just unable to work because the workplace is shut.
- That staff who have been working for these companies from the 13th of March would be paid normal pay throughout this pandemic regardless of what contract they are on. We asserted that anything other than this could only be an attempt to save money from this pandemic at the expense of the staff and university as a whole and that we shouldn’t allow it.
- That, If points two and three were not possible, the university give assurances that QMU would foot the bill for sick leave or contingency leave and bring the staff in house.
- If the outsourced companies go bust, is there a mechanism to bring all the current staff (including those working zero hours this week) in house?
QMU management, the next day came back with a statement that said that contracted employees should suffer no detriment to their positions and that any costs associated with this would be met by the university under existing contracted arrangements. Also, that contracted staff would continue to be paid their normal salary when self-isolating, are in quarantine or where they could not be on site due to service changes or disruption and that this includes those in vulnerable groups required to follow government advice to stay at home.
This was definitely a step forward, which the unions welcomed, but the UCU branch are currently pushing for it also to apply to zero-hours staff and any other staff who had been laid off just before the pandemic.
However, it shows that in the current conditions, a little bit of campaigning can go a long way. It has demonstrated that, no matter how tight the contract or ‘reputable’ the company, when essential work in educational institutions is outsourced to private companies, it is the least paid and most insecure workers who suffer. Public sympathy has never been higher for casualised workers and respect has never been higher for manual front line workers. People are seeing the failings of capitalism and thinking very seriously about public control.
While some staff in universities may, in the short term at least, still be in relatively secure employment the same is not the case for everyone and certainly not for those employed in outsourced work.
UCU can play a crucial role in gathering information on the offending outsourcing companies. We need to make sure this is a central campaigning point for UCU during the crisis and that universities take full responsibility for all their workers, whether directly or indirectly employed by them. We should also be collecting and sharing information on which companies are abusing their workers, and use our online resources to publically name and shame them, as well as monitoring the actions of individual universities so that we can share campaigning tips on this important issue. We have an opportunity to campaign for any company who withholds wages to be brought back in house immediately without compensation.