Universities slammed for zero-hours contracts

Edinburgh University has the highest number of zero-hours contracts in the UK. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh University has the highest number of zero-hours contracts in the UK. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Thousands of Scottish workers are suffering “abuse and exploitation” on zero-hours contracts and earning less than the minimum wage, a damning report by MPs has found.

A “two-tier workforce” is emerging across the UK as a result of the controversial approach to casual labour which is particularly bad in Scotland, according to Westminster’s Scottish affairs select committee.

The situation is so bad in Scotland’s universities that HM Revenue and Customs is now being asked to investigate breaches of minimum wage laws.

Around 90,000 Scots are on zero hours contracts which provide no guarantee of work – and half of workers on these deals earn less than £15,000.

High Street giants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Sports Direct, Boots and Cineworld are among those with staff on zero hours contracts.

The UK government is now being urged to act to support workers who challenge these “unfair, unsafe or unlawful” employment conditions, while Holyrood should beef up procurement rules to freeze out contractors which use them.

Committee chairman Ian Davidson MP said: “The overwhelming majority of zero hours contracts are abusive and exploitative and should be abolished.”

He added: “In most cases their use is evidence of sloppy, lazy or incompetent management, who intimidate their workforce by keeping them insecure.”

About one million people across the UK are on the zero hours contracts, according to a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personal Development, despite official estimates claiming it is about half this.

While they can benefit some workers and employers, the relationship is often unbalanced, leaving the employer with all of the flexibility and few costs and the worker in fear of dismissal, the committee found.

Scottish universities come in for particular criticism. About 79 per cent of staff are on the deals, compared with 53 per cent across the UK. This includes about 4,500 teaching staff in Scotland’s colleges and universities, almost half the total in Scottish higher institutions.

About 2,400 of Edinburgh University’s total workforce is on the zero hours deals, the highest anywhere in the UK.

“We are alarmed by the extent to which zero hours contracts are used by Scotland’s higher education sector,” the report states.

“In some cases universities are being kept going by a staff who earn less than the minimum wage. The system of employment appears to us one of unashamed exploitation.”

The committee is now formally recommending that HMRC investigates the use of the deals by higher institutions in Scotland in order to determine whether they have “broken minimum wage legislation”.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities have already launched reviews.

Staff who speak out against the arrangements can find their hours withdrawn or suffer bullying and harassment and bullying, the report finds.