Pay is falling, except for those at the top, and staff tensions at SOAS are a portent of what the whole sector can expect, writes Feyzi Ismail
The campaign for better pay and conditions for hourly-paid ‘fractional’ staff at SOAS is now entering its fifth month. Fractionals For Fair Play, which now has the support of hundreds of fractional and permanent staff across 24 departments, and cleaners and students at SOAS, was formed in January following the initial UCU strikes as part of the national dispute for fair pay.
Fractional staff are casual, temporary, part-time workers, the vast majority of them PhD students, who while writing are also trying to gain teaching experience and earn an income. Many fractional staff rely on these wages as their sole source of income. In other cases, fractional staff are teaching and working other jobs, in addition to the PhD, causing increased levels of stress.
Underpaid and undervalued
One of the first activities of the campaign was to undertake a survey to better understand the pay and working conditions of fractional staff across the school. Conducted over several weeks, the survey documented actual hours worked compared to the hours and pay stipulated in our contracts.
Numbers were crunched from 94 contracts and the results were no less than shocking. According to the data, the actual hourly wage rate of all fractional staff is less than £9 per hour, which is approximately half of what is stated in the contracts. In other words, over half the hours dedicated to teaching – at one of the most prestigious universities in the country – are unpaid.
The survey revealed that half of all Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) earn less than £8 an hour and a quarter less than £6 an hour – less than the London Living Wage. At least one GTA was earning as little as £2 per hour. For Senior Teaching Fellows (STFs), who lecture, convene courses, set exams and so on, the situation was worse. Although STF contracts specify an hourly wage differential of £5 compared to GTAs, in actual terms it is 30 pence. All fractional staff are also expected to participate in a 3-day training, without pay.
The survey further revealed that contracts are biased against those who have fewer tutorials, and those who mark. Yet the trend at SOAS is to offer greater numbers of fractional staff fewer tutorials, since part of how the university justifies employing PhD students is that it provides valuable ‘training experience’. The survey also documented other major problems, such as contracts not being issued on time, having more than one contract at once, and contracts that do not account for all the tasks required to do the job.
Using our leverage
In March, the campaign held a 130-strong public meeting to present the survey findings. This served to consolidate support from staff, students and cleaners, and sent a message to management that the campaign was serious about securing better conditions. Management proposed a meeting to hear the findings, after which they agreed to a first round of negotiations.
Based on the survey data, the campaign put forward a proposal for a model contract, one that would make clearer which tasks were being paid. Currently, SOAS uses what is known as a ‘multiplier’, which includes preparation, marking, office hours and other administrative tasks. The campaign put forward a contract in which only preparation was included in the multiplier, with the demand that fractional staff be paid separately for marking, office hours, attending lectures and administrative tasks.
Management did not to respond to this proposal, nor did they set a date for a second round of negotiations. The campaign took the opportunity to use the particular leverage of fractional staff – to refuse to mark essays during a particular period following the end of term – to pressure management to make progress on addressing the demands of the campaign.
The effectiveness of such a boycott would, of course, depend on how many were willing to participate. The action was found to have solid support across several departments, and with several course convenors also refusing to pick up the unmarked essays. On 15 April, fractional staff declared they were no longer engaging in further unpaid labour, and that working to contract would now involve refusing to mark.
The campaign has since been strengthened. SOAS UCU has passed another motion supporting the campaign, and a petition was proposed by academics urging management to address workload grievances. Now an international statement of solidarity is being drawn up, with Noam Chomsky, David Harvey and others in support. Students also put together a video on why fractional staff must be supported. John McDonnell MP tabled an Early Day Motion in parliament in support of the campaign.
Last week, Fractionals For Fair Play held another successful public meeting, with the aim of reaching out to fractional staff at other universities. Over 100 people came out in support despite the tube strike. Des Freedman, UCU secretary at Goldsmiths, Adrian Budd, UCU secretary at London Southbank University and Jamie Woodcock, from the UCU anti-casualisation committee all spoke of the trend towards casualisation – higher education being the second most casualised sector in the country – and the importance of the campaign in terms of the example it could provide to fractional staff across the country.
Sanaa Alimia, a fractional member of staff, gave a moving account of working conditions, while Meera Sabaratnam, a permanent colleague at SOAS, emphasised the importance of exposing the undemocratic governance structures at SOAS. Georgie Robertson from the Democratise SOAS campaign, and Lenin Escuerdo from the Justice for Cleaners campaign also spoke. These campaigns at SOAS have provided inspirational support to Fractionals For Fair Play and demonstrated much-needed solidarity.
Success and a setback
Management have now indicated they are willing to negotiate. In what was meant to be a ‘pre-negotiation’ meeting last week, management made an offer: to pay current GTAs for the 3-day training, to commit to five negotiation meetings and not to victimise anyone who has been involved the campaign. But this falls far short of a reasonable starting point, with no guarantees of addressing the substantive issues around contracts and the multiplier.
While UCU officials have gone ahead and balloted fractional staff on the offer without consulting UCU fractional representatives, the campaign is pushing for a vote that rejects the offer and urges management to negotiate without preconditions. Dropping the boycott in response to management’s dismal offer would undermine campaign and establish negotiations that would offer no guarantees of substantive changes to working conditions, either now or in the future.
One indicator of the success of the campaign has been the discussion it has generated. Heated debate has emerged within UCU, amongst permanent staff and students. Now the campaign faces one of its biggest challenges so far. Fractionals for Fair Play is urging all fractional staff at SOAS to keep up the pressure for a better deal, use the UCU anti-casualisation day of action to spread the word about rejecting the current offer and ensure that the campaign continues – both during future negotiations and into next academic year.
Now that the UCU national dispute has ended, with 84% accepting the 2% pay offer, it’s vital that those at SOAS who want to continue to fight for better pay and conditions, including permanent staff, also get behind the Fractionals For Fair Play campaign.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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