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

Support from Jo Edge

I’m very grateful to my friend Jo for this endorsement of my UCU NEC candidacy. Jo has an extraordinary ability to both identify injustice and take action against it, and I hope that her perspective will help UCU members to better understand the background to the proposals which I’m putting forward in the current election.

I first met Ben on or around my 29th birthday when we began the MA in Medieval Studies at UCL together. It was a slog of a year; we’d do our Intermediate Latin classes together on Fridays and then retire to a coffee shop to recover with cake and coffee. As members of the academic precariat, our paths have since diverged and collided. After we’d gone our separate ways to do our PhDs we were then Scouloudi predoctoral fellows together at the Institute of Historical Research; and then in August 2019, after a stint in Germany, Ben came to the John Rylands Research Institute as a Leverhulme postdoctoral fellow while I was working at the John Rylands Library as a manuscripts cataloguer. Needless to say, the cake and coffee traditions continued.

In the ten years plus I have known Ben, he has been an unfailingly brilliant, kind and loyal friend. His work on late medieval Germany is second to none; and you can read more about some exciting discoveries he has made here. Ben, like myself, is invested in intellectual inquiry both as a medievalist and in a broad sense. This is something we as NEC representatives *should* be proud of.

Ben has become a tour de force in antiprecarity activism, which started when he got involved in the Manchester Anti-Precarity Network after the strikes in 2019/20. He has since started out as Branch Rep for Libraries and Museums and is undergoing the training necessary for this role; all while dealing with precarious employment himself during challenging times and running for NEC. 

Ben has come up with innovative and interesting ideas on how we combat precarity in our universities and colleges – a risk-sharing model which you can read all about on his website. These ideas are exactly the sort of thing we should be encouraging our members at all levels to bring to the table. If elected, I look forward to working with Ben on how we can develop these plans.

Dr Jo Edge, fixed-term lecturer, University of Manchester; UCU NEC Women’s rep 2020-22

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Welcome to my blog!

Thank you for visiting my website and blog about precarious employment in higher education.

I’m starting this project in the context of the 2021 elections to the National Executive Committee of the University and College Union, and you can read my extended election statement here.

But I plan to continue to develop my ideas over the longer term, building on the risk-based understanding of precarity and how it could be combatted, which I outline here and here.

You can read more about me personally here and here, and get in touch here.

I’d be happy to host guest posts on this blog (anonymously if you’d prefer), so please let me know if there’s anything that you’d like to write about.