Unite the Union on campus have expressed their disappointment with the Vice-Chancellor, after he confirmed he wouldn’t meet workers’ representatives – and accused him of “turning his back” on his staff.

They asked the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts, to meet representatives of the trade union, as well as to intervene to support furloughed workers who are currently earning less than the minimum wage.

Read more: Unicus worker calls for pay parity from Sheffield Uni during coronavirus pandemic

More than 1,000 staff and supporters recently signed an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, asking him to use university cash to furlough workers at 100 per cent of pay, to ensure they didn’t take home less than the minimum wage.

Workers’ representatives say there are currently 500 employees of the Students’ Union, and another 200 of Unicus – a standalone company owned by the University – are currently earning £6.16 an hour.

According to a survey by Unite at the SU, more than two-thirds of those asked said they would struggle to pay for housing costs (73 per cent) and food and basic amenities (67 per cent). Less than a fifth said they had family who could support them financially.

Read more: University of Sheffield implement ‘safety net’ for students following coronavirus pandemic

The union asked the Vice-Chancellor to intervene to ensure these workers are furloughed on full pay, as has been the policy with University of Sheffield’s own employees. However, in a letter from the University, they were told that he wouldn’t meet with them to discuss this, nor would all employees on campus be paid full furlough pay.

“Koen Lamberts has turned his back on the community that makes up the University of Sheffield,” said Harriet Eisner, the Unite regional officer.

“This is an ill-judged decision which is going to affect the reputation of the university. We urge him to think again and engage with the union which has the workers’ best interests at heart during the current health crisis.

“The Vice Chancellor is in charge of the University, employees of Unicus and the Students’ Union are part of his university community. They are employed on the lowest possible pay rates and are currently furloughed on 80 per cent of that.

“I find it incredible that the Vice Chancellor appears to be washing his hands of these young people who have paid fees to study at his university and work at his university in order to pay for their food and accommodation.”

Firth Court at the University of Sheffield.

Unite have been representing workers on campus throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen the University and Students’ Union operating online-only since mid-March, with many of the campus’ casual staff, who work in the cafes, shops and outlets around campus, furloughed as a result.

Read more: All face-to-face University of Sheffield teaching suspended due to coronavirus pandemic

In response to Unite, a spokesperson for the University of Sheffield told Forge Press: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the way UK universities operate. We don’t yet understand the full impact of the pandemic, but the University of Sheffield has already seen a loss of revenue from our accommodation, campus and conference activity and we are modelling some difficult financial scenarios based on how the pandemic may affect our next academic year.

“Although the University has committed to topping up the salary of any of its furloughed staff, the Sheffield Students Union and Unicus are separate employers with different financial and governance structures to the University.

“Both organisations are reliant on revenues from food and drink outlets to cover their staff costs and, like other retail and hospitality outlets, they have taken the decision to access the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme scheme to support their staff and protect jobs while their buildings and facilities remain closed and revenues from those activities have dried up.

“The University is committed to working collaboratively to minimise the impact of the pandemic on all our communities. We are working together to mitigate longer term financial risks and to ensure a safe return to work as we look at how we will reopen our campus.

“Leaders at both the Students’ Union and Unicus are working hard to make sure that staff do not face financial hardship. Details of the Students’ Union financial support scheme can be found here: https://su.sheffield.ac.uk/covid-money-issues/su-financial-support-scheme. Unicus has also written to its furloughed staff with details of their hardship fund and invited applications to it.”

Image: University of York


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