On Wednesday and Thursday last week all staff working in the University of Birmingham’s catering and conferences departments were invited to meetings with senior managers and HR. At these meetings roughly half of the staff (almost 120 staff in total), including chefs, supervisors and the whole Conference and Events Department were informed they were at risk of redundancy, with the university seeking up to 24 redundancies.
The university is also looking to impose “flexible” contracts on staff who currently work fixed weekly working hours. The plans will require most staff in the Catering to move to annualised hours contracts where weekly working hours are unpredictable and can vary drastically from week to week, leaving staff with caring or other responsibilities struggling to cope.
While ‘annualised hours’ is used at the moment for a minority of working patterns, it has never been used for part-time or part-year contracts. The proposal will also require staff to work across a much broader range of different units – even those staff already on annualised hours contracts largely keep a stable routine due to the operating hours of their normal unit, something which the changes could remove.
Reason behind the changes
The university claims the changes to catering are necessary because the catering department now runs a deficit, rather than the large surplus it made for the University several years ago. The university commissioned a review in 2019 into the functioning of the department and it is claimed the changes solely relate to this and not to the impact of the pandemic. It is claimed that the changes will bring the department back into profitability within the next five years.
The proposals also involve the closure of a number of cafes and food stalls on campus, with many of the possible job losses linked to this. Remaining staff will then be required to work flexibly across the remaining units with working hours changing to match “demand”.
Job losses in conferences and events are linked to a plan to massively cut delivered catering (which the department currently supports) as well as a suggestion that there is some overlapping of duties across roles suggesting the structure can be thinned accordingly.
Why is UNISON concerned?
UNISON has been seeking to engage about the future of these departments for many months and specifically asked to work together with the University on ways of achieving change without putting roles at risk or forcing staff out due to unrealistic expectations of working hours.
While change may be necessary in some respects, this does not mean that job losses are warranted or fair. A clear example of the unfairness is the fact that job losses are coming now at the start of the process even though it will take five years for the changes to take full effect. Achieving change gradually would clearly be a reasonable alternative rather than rushing to make cuts straight away. Additionally these cuts come after a university-wide invitation to take VLS, meaning that staff at risk could have taken advantage of these terms had they been aware of the likelihood of impending drastic change.
It’s also worth noting that staff have been incredibly flexible over the past year, including working different hours and in radically-different roles to their normal jobs. Where staff have been less flexible this has been because of specific commitments outside of work such as care (for children or other relatives), second jobs or an inability to travel to and from work at all hours of the day. The pandemic has also imposed limits on the extent to which people can be flexible with increased caring responsibilities and many staff needing to ensure they are in lower risk roles due to their vulnerability to the virus.
Annualised hours completely removes the certainty many staff rely on for the balance between work and their home lives. It only really works at the university in very specific circumstances, such as where staff regularly work greater than full-time hours or work shifts. The use of it for part-time work has very often been unsuccessful and has been reversed within a few years every time it has been tried.
The changes to both (Catering and Conferences and Events) departments follow a pattern we’ve seen across the university where staff numbers are cut (including by voluntary severance and not replacing staff when they leave) and remaining staff are asked to take on a broader range of duties and heavier workloads to fill the gaps.
Other restructures and changes
Two other restructures preceded these latest proposals, with cuts to jobs in the Creative Media department (with similar expansion of job descriptions) and potential moves to force supervisory staff on to more flexible working hours in Cleaning Services. Staff across the University will no doubt wonder if their department will be the next in what seems to be an ongoing series of restructures.
What should we do about it?
UNISON members at the university already voted to proceed to a consultative ballot due to concerns about the earlier restructure in Creative Media which the branch needs to now pursue with added urgency. While compulsory redundancies look less likely there due to the number of voluntary leavers, the four restructures currently taking place at the university give rise to serious concerns about staff workload and the growing pressure on staff to be incredibly flexible both in the hours they work and the different duties they take on.
To fight back against these changes we call on:
- Members to vote in our consultative ballot, launching this week via email, with postal votes following soon after for those who do not use email
- Look out for petitions and other ways we will ask you to show your support and Join UNISON if not already a member