Minimum Contract Length or Compensation?

In the context of the 2021 UCU NEC election, I’ve made proposals for an anti-precarity policy based around compensation for the risk which temporary staff are obliged to bear because our employers refuse to manage it. This mostly complements existing UCU demands (for example, ending the use of zero hours and hourly paid contracts), but has a more complex relationship with the demand ‘for all contracts (other than genuine cases of cover) to be no shorter than 24 months’, which was made in the HE unions joint claim of March 2020. Why do I favour compensation over a minimum contract length?

There are certainly circumstances in which a minimum contract length should be stipulated. In particular, whenever someone is temporarily employed to provide cover for another member of staff, the length of the temporary contract should match the length of the leave being covered. Most readers of this blog will know that teaching and research staff often take 12 months’ externally-funded research leave, but are replaced with a fixed-term member of staff on a 9- or 10-month teaching-only contract. Some universities and departments have recognized that this practice is grossly exploitative, but others persist with it, and it should be outlawed.

My approach, however, is founded on the principle that any fixed-term contract of employment is exploitative unless the temporary member of staff is compensated for the risk of redundancy and future unemployment which they must bear because the employer is unable or unwilling to take the risk of employing someone permanently. In many professions, employees or freelancers are in a position to demand this compensation in the form of higher pay for temporary work. Most of us in higher education are only able to make this demand collectively, through our unions. I argue here and here that the best form of compensation in our circumstances would be paid career development opportunities (such as internships), but the basic principle of compensation could be applied in different ways.

A 24-month minimum contract would sometimes produce similar results, indirectly. An employer who wants to employ someone for less than 24 months would in effect have to ‘compensate’ them with additional months of employment. Some employees would be very handsomely compensated, but contracts over 24 months would not be compensated at all. Should we accept this lack of compensation for those on longer contracts in order to ensure that no one has to experience a very short contract? Perhaps, if this were the only factor. But I feel that compensation has further advantages over a minimum contract length.

This is partly a question of the practical difficulties of banning anything, including contracts shorter than 24 months. The joint claim already includes an exception for ‘genuine cases of cover’, but a large proportion of the temporary posts in higher education are created to cover for various forms of leave which last precisely one (academic) year. Employers would no doubt push for further loopholes, which could and would be exploited. It is hard to demonstrate that there is no justification for any short-term temporary employment, although it is clear that all such employment is exploitative unless adequately compensated.

With so many exemptions, a 24-month minimum contract may not have any significant impact on employers’ workforce planning. But its restrictive nature might have a damaging impact, both for employers and for employees. ‘Efficiency’ has become a euphemism for risk dumping, but efficiency in itself is welcome within the bounds of non-exploitative, sustainable workforce planning. There is also the danger that the minimum might become the norm: employers could end up planning parts of their workforce around large numbers of 24-month contracts. Compensatory internships, on the other hand, would be directed by the employees themselves, so they would have no impact on workforce planning other than to make temporary staff more expensive than permanent staff. This should encourage employers to make more use of permanent staff.

Mandating compensation for all fixed-term contracts does not simply satisfy a principle of justice. It drives the use of permanent contracts and thus real security of employment for more people. Precarious employment is always problematic, but it is so very damaging to higher education because it is so prevalent. Even if we can control the length of individual contracts, we can’t influence the length of time which individuals have to spend moving from one temporary contract to another before they can secure a permanent post unless we can reduce the overall number of temporary contracts and increase the number of permanent posts. By increasing the cost to the employer of temporary staff (to reflect the real cost of temporary staffing), compensation is more likely than a minimum contract length to achieve this rebalancing.

We also have to think about the route to our preferred outcome, and compensation has advantages in this respect too. Because the compensation is directly related to the risk which has been offloaded, the campaign for it would raise awareness of exploitation through risk dumping. This is exploitation just as much as low pay or overwork, but its more abstract nature makes it harder to oppose. Compensation gives it a tangible form. Tackling issues of risk also gets to the heart of all the varied forms of precarity, building solidarity amongst precarious staff. And since employers also evade their obligation to manage their workforce planning risk by exploiting staff through excessive workloads, we can link our ‘casualization’ dispute to our ‘workload’ dispute, building vital solidarity between permanent and precarious staff.

A compensation demand therefore has better likely outcomes in multiple respects: ending risk-dumping exploitation; practicality of implementation; reducing the overall scale of precarious employment; and producing a strong campaign to achieve these goals. A 24-month minimum contract length, with the inevitable loopholes, might well do less to reduce the number of contracts shorter than 24 months. If we are to achieve real change, any alternative to the current precarity system must be rooted in the fundamental causes of this system.

I work through some questions on the practical implementation of a compensation system here. Image: UCU picket, University of Manchester, 9 March 2020

Published by Ben Pope

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester

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