Local union representatives have welcomed a commitment from Essex University to on-demand-workers after months of discussions behind closed doors.
At the end of November, Essex University revealed an eight-point commitment to so-called on-demand workers, those with no fixed hours or salary, after vice-chancellor Anthony Forster commissioned a ‘Task & Finish’ (T&F) group in May 2020 to comprehensively review university employment practices.
Prof Forster set the group, which comprised university and union representatives, the ambition of making Essex University “an exemplary employer”.
The commitment means on-demand staff will gain some of the same rights and benefits as their permanent colleagues, including “a fair rate of pay at an equivalent grade to any permanent staff, where the work is directly comparable”.
On-demand staff will also receive compensation for any shift accepted, then withdrawn at short notice. Workers will also be able to “decline or accept shifts to suit their circumstances without consequence to future engagements”.
Staff will gain institutional and role-specific training and inductions and receive pay for all mandatory training. They will also have access to “development opportunities to enhance their skills”, including on-the-job training and personal development through university learning events.
On-demand staff will have the “right to request” a review of their contract if they think their role has developed into a position and a named line manager to handle their workplace queries and concerns.
Most on-demand workers are in catering, estates and event management, or work as exam invigilators.
The commitment covers the university and its subsidiary companies, the University of Essex Campus Services Limited and the Wivenhoe House Hotel. The university consulted with its three campus unions, University and College Union (UCU), Unison and Unite, to develop the commitment.
It was one of the most positive experiences I have had recently in working with the university to improve the terms and conditions of its workers
– Cathy Crawford, Essex UCU
Cathy Crawford, out-going Essex UCU president, said senior leaders established the task force because “when they did the first furlough application, they realised there were more on-demand staff than seemed appropriate or desirable.” She said the university wanted to “devise a policy that would better reflect the university’s values and aspirations as an employer”.
Speaking to University Business, Crawford said: “Unison and Unite members of the T&F group reported that a significant number of these workers prefer not to be ‘employees’, because as ‘on-demand’ workers they can decline engagements whenever it doesn’t suit them; that was an eye-opener for many of us on the T&F group. So, instead of aiming to replace ‘on-demand’ work with regular ‘employment’ across the board, the T&F group concentrated on suggesting other kinds of improvements for such workers.
“We proposed that on-demand workers should have the same access to training and career-development advice/opportunities as ‘employees’, to give such workers as many of the advantages of employees as we could devise. Another eye-opener was that it is not appealing to come in, especially during a weekend, to set up marquees for just a few hours’ pay: that sort of issue was addressed sympathetically and constructively.”
“I felt real satisfaction when I saw the final policy. It was one of the most positive experiences I have had recently in working with the university to improve the terms and conditions of its workers,” Crawford added.
Unison senior national education officer Ruth Levin welcomed the commitment but said staff should always have the option of a contract. “This commitment is a step forward for zero-hours staff at the University of Essex but it falls short of making them a ‘fully valued’ part of the team. To create a truly professional and valued workforce all staff need the option of permanent contracts and guaranteed hours.”