QUBSU Workers Demand Respect From Queen’s University
Jessica Lawrence, Union Representative for the QUBSU Branch of Unite
In July, Queen’s University removed a number of casual staff members from The Speakeasy and other QUBSU facilities from the scope of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). This decision came as a result of the “unprecedented times” and on-going uncertainties surrounding how semester one would look at Queen’s.
Now, three months on, QUBSU staff are fully aware of how semester one looks: a campus without them.
After the last-minute decision to keep The Speakeasy closed for the rest of the semester in October, staff approached university management to ask for clarity regarding their employment and future income. Instead, staff were met with vague answers from those higher-up. Instead of being redeployed in other departments around Queen’s, staff were told it was not possible to “get work for all affected”, however it was later reported that QUB had hired external organisations such as EventSec for further security on campus, despite having an internal security workforce within QUBSU. For those worried about financial hardship, they were directed to Advice SU and the Student Support Fund, which some staff availed of and still have not heard back.
Ultimately, all management could guarantee was that the situation was under “continuous review”.
In mid-October, staff within The Speakeasy began to make contact with Unite Hospitality NI and within a week, over thirty members of staff had joined Unite and were beginning to understand the scope of their situation. As staff began to unionise, the reality of the situation became more apparent.
In a survey conducted within the QUBSU Unite workforce, 74 percent of staff relied on their roles within QUBSU as their main source of income. Unsurprisingly, the same 74 percent of staff stated that the University’s decision to remove them from furlough had “badly affected” their mental health. The survey also revealed that 32% of workers were having to rely on state benefits to make ends meet, an option unfortunately not open to their student counterparts who are ineligible for state financial support.
For workers, it became clear that the issue no longer focused on the financial hardships, but stemmed further to issues surrounding mental health, and being treated with respect by Queen’s. In late-October, a grievance was officially submitted to Queen’s detailing five major demands:
- Reinstate all casual workers currently on payroll to the existing CJRS from November 1st
- Backdate payments, permissible under the scheme, from the date they were removed on July 31st 2020
- Find alternative work within the University for all workers interest in taking this up
- Top up the pay of those who are furloughed to 100%
- Offer a full apology for the decision to remove workers from the CJRS in July.
After union representatives met with staff members from Campus Food and Drink to discuss the grievance in full, it was stressed that a decision from Queen’s needed to come promptly, given that the deadline to retrospectively back-pay staff for previous months they were not furloughed was November 30th – just 18 days from the first meeting. After a lack of transparency from Queen’s regarding a decision, union workers began to put pressure on Queen’s through a socially-distanced protest outside the gates of the Lanyon Building. Later this was followed up by the release of an online petition, which was shared by dozens of QUBSU societies, and has since garnered over 1,400 signatures.
Two days after the protest, Queen’s finally came back with a response – they were not prepared to fulfil any of the five demands.
Reacting to the news, Unite Hospitality organiser, Neil Moore, issued a statement condemning the decision made by Queen’s branding it “among the most callous we have received from any employer during this pandemic”. More shockingly, Mr Moore’s statement revealed the reality of the situation for many workers, revealing that 45 percent of workers had lost their living accommodation due to the devastating decision made by Queen’s – making them technically homeless.
As a QUBSU staff member for over three years, I am shocked at the university’s decision to show such a lack of respect for their dedicated and hard-working employees.Jessica Lawrence, QUB SU
Mr Moore also stressed that Queen’s decision was completely unnecessary, given that the financial support exists to support workers while facilities have been closed due to COVID, given that the Government have stated that there are no shortage to the funds available to secure employment. Also of note is that furloughing casual staff would come at no cost to the University.
Reacting to the news of Queen’s decision was union representative, Rosie Nixon, who expressed her disappointment in the University,
“Having worked in the Students’ Union for six years, and as a Queen’s student for five of those six years, I feel completely let down. Let down that the University does not value its workers enough to avail of a government-funded scheme. Let down that they have been so poor at communicating these decisions. Let down that they do not seem to care about the implications these decisions have had and will have on their workers.”
Given that QUBSU workers contribute significantly to the student experience, many of them are asking that Queen’s reevaluate how they see them. As a QUBSU staff member for over three years, I am shocked at the university’s decision to show such a lack of respect for their dedicated and hard-working employees. Going without an income for almost four months has seen me borrow money from close family members in order to pay my bills. To ease the pressure off my loved ones, immediately upon completion of my MA, I applied for Universal Credit – a state scheme not offered to those in full-time education.
Whilst this has taken pressure off me financially, I can’t help but feel indignant towards the University I attended for over four years. Whilst they were happy to take my tuition fees, they are now hesitant to allocate me a basic income which would be of no cost to themselves. Their treatment of casual staff, as seen through recent UCU strikes, has highlighted the increasingly marketised model of education that is running rampant in universities across the UK and Ireland. The decision by Queen’s this week should highlight to every student, present and prospective, exactly what the university thinks of them.
Rosie summarised our campaign perfectly: “We are worth more than zero and we demand to be treated with the respect we deserve.”
Sign the Petition:
To follow the campaign’s progress and response to the petition you can follow its dedicated social media feeds on Instagram and Twitter: @QUBSUWorkers.
Peter Donnelly, The Gown Editor
Queen’s Students Union workers have been the face of Queen’s University for public and social functions. When they were preforming their meet, greet and welcoming functions – everything was good. The Coronavirus pandemic came along and changed all that and with that the support afforded to the SU workers went out the window. Left rudderless, without basic income support, this campaign emerged. At a critical juncture in the run up to the Covid Christmas and on the cusp of a New Year it is paramount that the University meet their basic and reasonable demands.
My thanks goes out to Jessica Lawrence and her team for bringing this campaign to the attention of The Gown.
Queen’s University has been approached for comment.