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What did you do during the COVID-19 crisis? On casualised workers, work and the pandemic

Published: 21st April, 2020

Engineering building with covid-19 image

In a year’s time, in two years, in five years, people will look back and ask of individuals and institutions: ‘what did you do during the COVID-19 crisis?’ The answers will shape behaviour, influencing decisions on where to shop and work – and study.

The University of Leicester – like every other university, like every other organisation, company and institution, like every individual – is facing unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus. These challenges are financial: how to manage a massive shortfall of expected income from student fees, catering and housing provision. But they are also moral or ethical. When the institution is in trouble, how does it behave towards its people, the human beings who constitute it?

On April 8, University leaders cancelled a number of Unitemps contracts on the grounds that these were not ‘business-critical’. This happened across the institution, from Film Studies, Attenborough Arts and ELTU to the School of Business. In the School of Business alone, 18 contracts were cancelled: these contracts covered teaching and marking for semester-2 modules. The individuals affected, often doctoral students in the School, had done the teaching, and like many of their colleagues on open-ended contracts, had adapted at great effort to the new situation caused by the end of face-to-face teaching. On the 8th of April they were told that their services are no longer required. 

The cancellation or termination of these contracts is, in many cases, causing real hardship. Many of our colleagues – and these Unitemps-employed individuals are our colleagues – were depending on that income. Some have told us they now don’t know how to pay their rent and their bills. And for what benefit to the institution? In ULSB, the overall savings are approximately £25k. Will these savings save the institution, as they threaten individuals’ livelihoods? And even if such savings were sufficient to save the University of Leicester, what would be saved? Is this what a ‘values-based’ institution would do?

What of the work, the marking, the teaching yet to be done and – over the summer – the supervision of at least one thousand Masters dissertations? Has this work also been cancelled? No. University leaders wish to effect a ‘reprioritisation’ of tasks, a reallocation of work, shunting these labours onto employees on open-ended contracts. But these colleagues on open-ended contracts are also facing difficulties. These colleagues are already overworked. The School of Business has recruited successfully in recent years – as a result, it is understaffed by at least 15 full-time academics, possibly as many as 25 or 30. Now existing colleagues are being asked to ‘absorb’ 2000–3000 extra hours of work. To repeat this point: colleagues in ULSB are already working beyond their contracted hours. (And now they have the additional challenges of the covid-19 situation.) There is no work that can be removed from them. No reallocation is possible. ‘Reprioritisation’ can only mean a deprioritisation of their family life, their health, their wellbeing. 

We understand that we are living through unprecedented circumstances. We understand that we will all have to give something – in fact, we are already giving a lot. But we cannot give more, unless we know that the University’s leadership is looking out for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Moving forward…

To the University of Leicester leadership we say: Many colleagues on open-ended contracts are willing to do some work above our ‘normal’ workload, but we will not work above and beyond ‘normal’ in order to cover the work of those colleagues whose contracts have been cancelled – you must first reinstate all mission-critical Unitemps contracts cancelled on 8 April.  You must also revisit your decision to refuse Unitemps contracts for the summer term – and over the summer vacation. The work done by these colleagues is ‘business-critical’, while those who perform it depend upon the income it provides. The protection of the most vulnerable – and of everyone’s health – is ‘business critical’! We call on this institution to live up to its stated values and protect and support the university community; you have a duty of care towards members of this community.

To University of Leicester employees (whether members of UCU or not) we advise you to not take on additional work that takes you above and beyond collectively agreed workload norms until the situation with our casualised colleagues has been resolved. If you have managerial responsibilities, we advise you not to distribute such additional above-and-beyond tasks.