• Terry Hayward
  • 5 June 2018

Striking at inequality

Recent strikes at the University of London led by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) as part of their ‘Back in House’ campaign has prompted the university to commit to reviewing the types of roles it has been outsourcing to third party contractors.

The union has been in a dispute for some time over this matter, but recent strikes have seen between 100 and 130 staff walk out, including security staff, cleaners, porters, post room staff, audio-visual technicians, gardeners and receptionists. The union is claiming success that this collective action, the largest number of outsourced staff to do so in the UK’s higher education history, has forced the university to reconsider its outsourced contracts, although there is not yet an agreed timescale or confirmation of which contracts they’re prepared to review. As a result, a further strike will be taking place on 6 June to ramp up the pressure on the university.

The action comes following complaints and protests from outsourced workers that they are not operating on equal terms with staff who work directly for the university and are suffering from lower pay and much reduced benefits, illegal deductions from wages, and are more likely to experience bullying and discrimination by comparison.

The IWGB is pushing for services to be brought back in-house within 12 months, which will have an inevitable knock-on effect on the university’s budgets.

It’s a salient warning for any company that seeks to outsource certain services, or to those that supply them, that those workers on large contracts – sometimes within one facility – will be brushing shoulders with staff who may have significantly advantageous terms and conditions. As such matters are not bound by confidentiality, there’s an inevitability that they may share their respective terms with each other. The risk becomes especially great in a trade union-recognised environment where there may be an opportunity for collective action as a means to seeking equality.

Avoiding disparity is not always easy, but companies that provide outsourced staff need to consider the terms under which they do so. Especially important is when staff are transferred from a direct employer to an outsourced provider via TUPE (Transfer of Undertaking Protection of Employment Regulations). In that situation the staff will come across on their existing terms and conditions but that does not completely preclude the new employer from harmonising these over time and/or bringing new people onto the same contract on substantially lesser terms and conditions.

Even if outsourced staff are on different contracts, engagement with them is important to promote the company’s values, stress what benefits are available to them, and keep them informed and communicated with.  Outsourcing companies need to ensure their people managers are well-skilled and able to manage, and consider being part of high profile initiatives such as the voluntary Living Wage.

The more that can be done to reduce or remove any disparity, the better, to avoid being backed into a corner in the same way that the University of London appears to have been. Trade unions feel that they have been muzzled a little over the last 20-30 years, but with unions now focusing on reaching a broader base of members via social media, combined with visible success, such as in the University of London case, other unions may well support similar action in the future.


A blog from the Employment Relations experts, Workplace Law