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Achieving justice through formal employment
This Sunday 20th February marks the United Nation’s (UN) World Day of Social Justice. The theme this year is ‘achieving justice through formal employment’. The focus is on the informal economy, in which 60% of the world’s employed population participate. Those employed in the informal economy are not protected by regulations such as health and safety or employment rights and are not entitled to employment benefits such as sickness and holiday pay. People who work in the informal economy are much more likely to be poor, in which case housing and unsanitary conditions can compound the impact of working in the informal economy.
When we in the global North talk about the informal economy, there is often an assumption that this occurs in poorer, less developed countries (it is semantics – here in the UK we use the preferred term of the ‘gig economy’). However, this is a global problem and often the richest industries and countries engage in abusive employment practices that form part of the problem of the informal economy. Let’s take Qatar as an example. Qatar has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, but it also has an extremely high level of income inequality. I heard Natasha Iskandar recently discussing the case of migrant workers in Qatar during construction for the football world cup. Migrant workers are vulnerable to the informal economy due to various labour and visa restrictions throughout the world. In Qatar migrant workers were needed to build the stadia, however this came at a cost to employment conditions including wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation. At the time in Qatar, it was illegal for such workers to withhold labour and they could not voluntarily leave the country without the consent of their employers. The often-abusive employment conditions within the Kafala system of sponsored migrant labour would push people into the informal economy. Having come under some criticism, Qatar has since reformed the Kafala system to improve social protections for migrant workers and were the first of the Gulf countries to do so.
The informalisation of the education economy
On a global scale, the problem of the informal economy is vast there are unique challenges to different groups and social contexts. It will take a large-scale effort to make changes needed to abolish the informal economy globally if it ever can be abolished. Perhaps though we can start by looking a little closer to home and see if we can make a difference there. Academia has traditionally been perceived by those outside of it as a sector of elite institutions, the ‘ivory towers’, where highly paid, highly skilled academics talk from their parapets in a language those outside of it cannot understand. There is a perception that academics are highly paid, highly skilled workers with job security, good pensions, and a comfortable working life. Higher education management in some institutions have been known to refer to academics using derogatory terms such as ‘slackademics’. As every hard-working academic will tell you, this cannot be further from the truth.
What used to be a place of free thinking, sharing of ideas, and encouraging students to do the same (note: I’m told academics used to have time to think and read) has become a place where profit and business ethos overrides such niceties. The marketisation of education, which can be traced back to the early 1990s has seen a growth in informal employment putting paid to the myths of job security inter alia, lecturing staff well-being. As Vicky Canning put it in the below Tweet, this constitutes institutional violence, something we criminologists are charged with speaking up against.
The university industry has become increasingly reliant on casualised contracts leading to staff not being able to get mortgages or tenancies. During my time at a previous institution, I worked on fixed term contracts as a teaching assistant. The teaching contracts would typically last for 10-12 weeks, there were constant HR errors with contracts, which were often not confirmed until the week before teaching or even after teaching had started. Each semester there would be at least a few teaching assistants who got paid incorrectly or did not get paid at all. These are the people delivering teaching to students paying at least £9,250 per year for their education. Is this value for money? Is this fair? In a previous round of strikes at that institution I let my students know that after all the work they put into writing, I only got paid for 20 minutes to mark one of their 3,500-word essays. They did not seem to think this was value for money.
While I was working under such contracts, I had to move to a new house. I visited many properties and faced a series of affordability checks. As the contracts were short term, landlords would not accept this income as secure, and I was rejected for several properties. I eventually had to ask a friend to be a guarantor but without this, I could easily have ended up homeless and this has happened to other university teaching staff. It was reported recently in the Guardian that a casualised lecturer was living in a tent because she was not able to afford accommodation. All this, on top of stressful, unmanageable workloads. These are the kinds of things casualised university staff must contend with in their lives. These are the humans teaching our students.
This is just one of the problems in the higher education machine. The problems of wage theft, forced overtime, debt bondage and intimidation seen in Qatar are also seen in the institutionally violent higher education economy, albeit to a lesser (or less visible) extent. Let’s talk about wage theft. A number of universities have threatened 100% salary deductions for staff engaging in action short of strike, or in simple terms, working the hours they are contracted to do. Academics throughout the country are being threatened with wage theft if they cannot complete their contractual duties within the hours they are paid for. Essentially then, some higher education establishments are coercing staff to undertake unpaid overtime, not dissimilar to the forced overtime faced by exploited migrant workers building stadia in Qatar.
Academics across the country need to see change in these academic workloads so we can research the exploitation of migrants in the informal labour market, to work towards UN sustainability goals to help address the informal economy, to engage in social justice projects within the informal economy in our local area, and to think about how we can engage our students in such projects. In effect academics need to work in an environment where they can be academics.
How can we begin to be critical of or help address global issues such as the informal economy when our education system is engaging in questionable employment practices, the kind of which drive people into the informal economy, the kind of employment practices that border the informal economy. Perhaps higher education needs to look inwards before looking out