The Memo: Oxford University to be sued for hiring academics on insecure contracts

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All work and no (holiday) pay: Oxford University to be sued for hiring academics on insecure contracts

Alice Gregory – 13 February 2023

Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams, two lecturers from the University of Oxford, will be suing the institution for hiring them on fixed-term personal services contracts as ‘gig workers’ for 15 years. They claim that the nature of their contracts and lack of classification as employees meant that they were deprived of basic workplace rights, and believe that they were unfairly dismissed in April 2022 due to their participation in union campaigning.

That’s the basic summary to get you caught up, but let’s break down the legal jargon. Crucially, a contract for services – like that of Jolly and Abrams – is not the same as a contract of employment. The two claimed that almost 70% of Oxford’s staff are on questionable contracts like this, with many hired on a zero-hours basis. This is a type of contract in which employers don’t need to provide any minimum working hours, and is often used in hospitality, or for gig workers. Because of this, Jolly and Abrams were not officially classified as employees, and did not receive holiday pay oy compensation for any extra time spent preparing lecture materials. It’s a precarious setup for staff and, although the two academics were promised a fairer contract, this was not renewed in 2022.

Leigh Day, who represented Uber drivers in a 2021 Supreme Court ruling which granted them pension and paid holidays, will also be representing Jolly and Abrams. The lawsuit against Oxford will draw on the Uber case, in which drivers were employed under similarly questionable contracts that classified them as self-employed instead of workers. If this case is successful, it is hoped that it could encourage or help other university staff members on similar contracts to seek legal action.