The proliferation of the zero-hours contract has been one of the more worrying trends in employment in recent years.
The euphemistic term many employers prefer is hours-to-be-notified contracts, but whatever you call them, the contracts mean an employer has no obligation to provide any work to the employee. Staff are paid as and when required and many have none of the traditional rights of the employee, such as sick pay. It is a contract in which almost all of the power rests with the employer.
Scotland's universities are among the heaviest users of the contract, with around two-thirds employing some lecturers in this way. This is far more than any other area of employment and is particularly disappointing in a sector where wages are already low in many cases. As new research from the NUS and Unison has revealed, thousands of lecturers are paid less than the minimum wage.
To such low pay, the zero-hours contract adds uncertainty and insecurity. Many staff will struggle to obtain mortgages; others will be forced to take on other part-time jobs to plug the gaps in their hours. Of course, the zero-commitment applies to both employer and employee and there may be a few employees for whom the contracts are suitable, even desirable - those who need to fit their work round child care, for instance.
However, in reality most of the power will rest with the employer and the impact this can have on women is particularly concerning. As the Educational Institute of Scotland points out, women on zero-hours contracts will often receive no sick pay, limited pensions and no maternity pay. The EIS believes this is sexist because the majority of staff on zero-hours arrangements are women; certainly, universities, which have such a high proportion of female employees, and in the case of St Andrews, a female principal in Louise Richardson, should be setting a better example.
The suspicion must be that universities are resorting to the use of these contracts to save money in the short term - certainly their budgets are under severe pressure - but in the long term they should look at other options, not least because the zero-hours contract is likely to undermine the loyalty an employee will feel towards an institution.
There is also no reason why alternatives to the zero-contract cannot be made to work in a university setting - indeed, with a predictable academic year and exam timetable, the part-time or short-term contract should be possible in most cases. Limited hours could be agreed in advance with the option of either party terminating the agreement after a set period. The employer would also have an obligation to offer sick pay, maternity and other rights.
Such rights are the least that a employee can expect in the 21st century. Naturally, universities and other employers sometimes need to take on staff on a short-term basis - and how often and for long they will need them is not always predictable. But flexibility for the employer cannot be allowed to usher in a two-tier system in which staff with zero-hours contracts also end up with zero rights.
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