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Workers treated badly

Debating about the work practices of Sports Direct is a semi-comforting, dangerous delusion. Such horrors cannot be visited on People Like Us. Victorian workhouses? Staff so terrified of losing their jobs they cannot dare protest about their abuse? Of course it’s terrible, but (whisper it), it only happens to the low-paid and the low-skilled, in dead-end jobs. Right?

Wrong. Mike Ashley, with his wad of casino-dirtied fifties and his helicopter commutes, makes an easy newspaper grotesque, but it’s his treatment of employees that is the really grotesque thing. And those practices are creeping into the lives of more and more workers – even those with the whitest of collars and the longest string of letters after their names. Think your job can’t be Ashley-fied? Then come to one of the most admired universities in Britain, and meet a group of lecturers who say they’ve just been given the full Sports Direct treatment.

They include Aisha, who teaches English at Coventry University. Coventry is one of the most respected institutions in the higher education industry. When awards are handed out, it’s at the front of the queue, scooping University of the Year in the Times Higher Education awards for 2015. It’s as lauded by conservative ministers as Sports Direct was once loved by the City.

Ever since David Cameron increased the cap on student fees to £9,000 and shoved universities into the market, the entire sector has been a confusion of business bullshit and landgrabs. But to see what the modern university will look like in 10 years, go to Coventry today. Raring to expand abroad, keen on partnering with companies and rapidly acquiring a large real estate portfolio, this is the definition of Higher Education PLC.

Its top man, John Latham, has spent years in marketing and now boasts two job titles – vice-chancellor and, of course, CEO. This explains why he earns nearly twice as much as the prime minister. His total pay package for last year topped £300,000. He wants degrees to be even more expensive and enjoys such phrases as, “We’re challenging the system. We’re bringing in new forms of pedagogy.”

Aisha can tell you what those “new forms of pedagogy” look like to her. She specialises in teaching English to foreign students, making sure that they can keep up with all the lectures and coursework. She’s taught traumatised students from bombed-out Benghazi and helped others who are undergoing chemotherapy. And she can tell you about walking into the university library and meeting former students who’ve just won an award for design or engineering. “They run up beaming, and then they give me a big hug.”

Just three years ago, someone like Aisha would have been employed directly by Coventry as a graded university lecturer. A year ago, Aisha says she and her colleagues had their contracts shifted into one of Coventry’s commercial subsidiaries. With no change to the actual work, they claim they lost perks and were put on a much worse contract. The university has described the subsidiaries as “self-governing, autonomous bodies”. Yet they are wholly owned by the university.

At the university, Aisha’s colleagues were members of a union. None of Coventry’s subsidiaries recognised trade unions. Managers were asked this summer why that should be. According to two separate notes of the meeting, the recently installed head of HR claimed that the business model of the commercial subsidiaries “simply would not be viable” if their staff were offered the same terms as their university counterparts.

What that term “viable” means, is that the university’s new business models are built upon squeezing good terms and conditions from workers – while extracting the same gold standard of work. At this point, remember that Coventry is a charity, kept afloat by public money in the form of taxpayer-based student fees.

Aisha’s colleagues pushed for union recognition, and with the intervention of a government agency, a staff ballot was held. Nearly three-quarters of those eligible voted this month – and 100% voted for union recognition. Press releases trumpeting the news went out. Then, they say, something very unexpected happened. Within hours, staff claim they were summoned to see HR officials and given a new contract: the English lecturers were being turned into temporary agency workers.

They are now placed in the university’s dedicated temp agency, thefutureworks. And crucially, thefutureworks forms part of yet another subsidiary, which doesn’t recognise trade unions.

The policy officer for the Universities and Colleges Union, Jonathan White, describes this as “old-fashioned union-busting”. Coventry University denies the timing had anything to do with the union ballot, but says instead that “developments in the higher education sector have driven these changes … Brexit, for example, has had major implications for universities and how they plan activities going forward.”

The university claims the new contracts are the same as those with the new subsidiary a year ago. However, the UCU’s lawyers claim that the new temp agency contract strips workers of company sick pay and access to a company pension scheme. They say staff are no longer classified as employees and have far fewer employment rights, including protection from unfair dismissal, and can have their employment terminated without notice.

“It’s a McJob now – a McTeaching Job,” says Aisha. When MPs investigated Sports Direct this summer, they heard how the company was forced in similar fashion to Coventry to accept union recognition for permanent staff. Union officials alleged that Ashley’s response was to hire temp agency workers. In its written evidence, Unite said: “As a direct response, we believe, to Unite securing statutory recognition, agency staff now make up the predominant workforce in the warehouse.” Unionised permanent staff were, to coin a phrase, just not viable in Ashley’s business model.

White claims there are clear similarities. “Coventry’s subsidiary company appears to be aping the employment practices of a bargain basement retailer that has been publicly castigated for its disgraceful treatment of staff.”

So ask yourself again: are you really immune to the Sports Direct treatment? Not when university lecturers are claiming to have been turned into the equivalent of bar staff in the time it takes to say “please report to our office”. That tells you that Ashley-fication has less to do with what you do or how well you do it – and a lot more to do with whether your rights are well-defended.

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