University support staff launch landmark case over pay and conditions

About 75 university support staff are launching a legal challenge over pay and conditions in a landmark case that could improve rights for agency workers.

The receptionists, security officers, postroom staff and porters working at the University of London are employed through facilities management company Cordant Security, but are seeking the right to agree their pay and conditions with the university.

Papers for the case, which is backed by gig economy union the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, and barrister Jolyon Maugham QC’s Good Law Project, are being filed at the central arbitration committee on Tuesday.

It argues that denying the workers the right to collectively bargain with their “de facto employer” is a breach of article 11 of the European convention on human rights, to join a trade union and have it protect their interests.

If successful, the case could potentially open the door for thousands of agency workers across the UK, such as those working in the Sports Direct warehouse, to negotiate with the company that ultimately benefits from their labour.

The IWGB general secretary, Dr Jason Moyer Lee, said: “When it comes to the most important elements of pay and terms and conditions for the outsourced workers, it is the University of London and not Cordant which calls the shots.

“In order for these workers’ collective bargaining and human rights to mean anything, we need to be able to negotiate directly with the university, not the glorified middleman.”

The court case is the latest in a series of battles over better employment rights and pay between agency workers, particularly cleaning staff, and universities and other major institutions including hospitals.

Britain’s growing army of agency staff earn hundreds of pounds a year less than employees doing the same jobs, according to a report into the issue published last year by the Resolution Foundation thinktank.

The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the practice of using agency workers hit those in the lowest-paid sectors the hardest.

“Outsourcing a cheap trick used by bad bosses to dodge their basic responsibilities to workers. They’re trying to hammer down people’s pay and get an unfair advantage,” she said.

“Other European countries have a sensible way of dealing with this. Unions and businesses negotiate fair pay rates for the whole sector, which means outsourcing can’t drive down pay and conditions.”

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