The Sussex Student Solidarity group and Crisis Justice grassroots campaign are fighting to prevent the redundancies of catering and facilities staff on campus during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Channel spoke to a student and union member involved in the campaign to find out why the redundancies are happening and what you can do to get involved.
Sign the petition to stop the redundancies here: https://www.change.org/p/university-of-sussex-urgent-stop-mass-catering-job-cuts-at-the-university-of-sussex-sign-the-petition-today
What is the current campaign about?
We are demanding that management at the University and their catering partners at Chartwells reverse plans to make 39 of their 55 on-campus staff redundant on 17th November. These redundancies mean that 39 families are going to be vulnerable to poverty, deportation (in the case of migrant workers), and huge difficulties finding another job during record unemployment and in the midst of a pandemic. This is happening in the weeks leading up to Christmas, which for many families is a financially difficult time to begin with.
Why are the redundancies happening?
The official line has been that there is a decrease in demand for services due to the pandemic. But, to me, this ignores the demand for delivery and collection. It just doesn’t make sense if there ends up being only 12 people (the other 4 remaining jobs are managerial roles) to be responsible for delivering and supplying food for thousands of students in halls of residence during a pandemic. Companies often use crises to make redundancies and then replace workers on zero-hour contracts. This saves costs for companies even though the workers being made redundant are already more likely to be earning minimum wage. I think it’s fair to say it’s incredibly greedy on the part of those who have power to make such decisions, considering that many of them will work from home earning far more than any of these frontline workers.
There’s even less justification for these actions now that the furlough scheme is running until March 2021.
What could the university be doing?
These are outsourced staff contracts, so it’s easy for management to absolve themselves of accountability when staff are unfairly treated, and in this case, made redundant. The university decided to end their in-house employment of catering and facilities management staff in 2013. Still, the university should recognise that some of the people who face losing their jobs now (and those who have already lost them) were in-house staff before the decision was made to outsource.
In this situation, senior management could be publicly expressing their concerns and opposition to these redundancies – that’s the very least they should be doing for people that the university was originally responsible for hiring. The bar is low for showing some humanity at this point. It’s also the least they can do for the students on campus who will be relying on catering services over the pandemic, especially if they’re vulnerable and self-isolating. Even by the time campus re-opens fully, there is no way that agency staff can provide services as efficiently and to the safety regulations required of them without the experience and knowledge that the current staff already have.
It’s impossible to answer this question without referencing the wider issue of outsourcing at the university. What we should really be demanding is for the university to take full responsibility for working conditions across campus, starting with a pledge to bring back in-house employment of catering and facilities management staff instead of continuing to outsource them.
What other problems has Covid-19 highlighted at the university?
There have been many problems during the crisis and I think they they overlap each other and also reflect a wider problem with the way in which universities are run. For a start, the very unclear information provided in university emails leading up to and over summer; vague statements about safety measures they’re taking but very little straightforward information until a couple of weeks before freshers. I’m now in my final year but from certain group chats I get the impression many first year students feel incredibly misled into paying such high rent for accommodation in halls that they’re now trapped in while they receive all their education online! These students could have saved money and stayed back home or off-campus instead, and it must be especially frustrating when they don’t have access to many of the resources on campus that are often used to justify halls’ growing rent costs. What is worrying right now is the increasing police presence on campus. The SU and UCU have a full statement on this, which everyone should read. Police presence has been justified as a way to monitor student parties, but it’s contributing to a hostile environment for certain demographics instead. We believe that police surveillance on campus is putting BAME and international students at a greater risk of being targeted disproportionately in relation to their white British counterparts. This is meant to be a safe environment for learning.
This all relates to a wider discussion on how commodified higher education has become. Introducing tuition fees and phasing out government grants and funding has meant that too many universities view themselves more as businesses making money from their customers – who happen to get a degree out of it – rather than as educational institutions with a duty of care towards their students. The ways in which a lot of these institutions have dealt with Covid-19 has just forced more students to face this reality.
What are the Student Solidarity group and Crisis Justice at Sussex working on in general?
The Student Solidarity group at Sussex works to bring students across the university together in order to build up support, awareness and engagement for campaigns around issues such as student renters’ rights, anti-racism, accessibility for students with disabilities, free education, decolonizing the curriculum, workers’ rights. As students we are able to oppose the university more openly than the people it employs. We also engage with the student union on these issues to ensure that they represent us and hold those who run the university accountable. As a group we are currently navigating our way around digital activism due to the ongoing restrictions of this pandemic, and always looking for more people to join us! Crisis Justice is a grassroots campaign supported by UCU and Unison fighting for justice at Sussex in response to the pandemic.
What can students do to get involved?
There are a number of things students can do to get involved. We have a general WhatsApp group which people can join: https://chat.whatsapp.com/K03jGS1RyFICoMp4nXmitX. Following our page @sussexsolidarity on Instagram can be a useful resource as it provides a lot of the links to online events, google docs for letter templates, as well as other WhatsApp groups which are used to organise around different issues. We also use this platform to share details for future actions. It’s also worth keeping up to date with grassroots campaigning for workers by following @CrisisJusticeSX on Twitter. In normal circumstances we would have in person-meetings and events but due to the current situation our current methods are limited to online.
Images for this article were sourced from the @sussexsolidarity Instagram page.