Low-wage university workers ‘face uncertain future’

JUSTICE campaigners have urged Oxford University to better its health and safety working conditions and secure pay for its employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

Activists from the Oxford Living Wage Campaign published a strongly-worded open letter to the university and its constituent colleges in light of Covid-19-related disruptions following reports from staff facing uncertainty about their future.

A total of 42 signatories put their name to the letter sent to Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson, including trade unions, councillors, former and current students, teaching staff and support groups on the frontline of the fight against the virus.

The living wage group, which campaigns for better pay for all workers based on the high cost of living in the city, called on the institution to assure all its employees that they will continue to receive payment, job security and protection during the pandemic period.

Their demands include better communication between the university and staff, shielded pay and benefits – including for those on variable and zero-hour contracts – and safe working conditions and immigration support.

The group’s letter states: “We are concerned that adequate measures have not been taken to protect sub-contracted and casual workers in the university and college system.

“Inaction on this issue will compound the ongoing public health crisis and jeopardise the long-term health of our university community.

“This uncertainty is severely amplified for low-income groups, a significant proportion of whom are from particularly vulnerable migrant and BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] communities.”

In February it was announced that almost 2,000 staff members at the university were set to receive a pay rise as it became the largest employer in the city to sign up to pay the Oxford Living Wage starting on August 1.

However, campaigners claimed that the institution’s approach to the ongoing crisis has been ‘disparate’.

They argued that some colleges have made no financial help to workers on variable and zero-hour contracts, not taking advantage of government furlough schemes and leaving many without pay.

The letter was influenced by employees’ accounts of dangerous conditions, such as the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) when cleaning infected students’ dormitories.

Oxford Living Wage Campaign chairman Jabu Nala-Hartley said the demands were ‘crucial at this point in time given the detrimental effect of these precarious working conditions’.

Oxford University did not comment on the reports of lay-offs and unsafe working conditions.

It has also not yet issued an official response to the letter from the Oxford Living Wage Campaign.

However, university spokesperson Christopher McIntyre commented: “Extensive planning is currently underway in response to the Covid-19 crisis, including how we will adapt to the financial implications of the pandemic.

“This is focussed on ensuring the well-being of our staff and students, and ensuring that we can offer our staff as safe and secure a working environment as possible.

“All our work throughout this difficult period is being done in our usual collaborative way.”

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