Casual work in education: 'I even contemplated suicide'

Being a casual worker in FE has resulted in ever increasing pressure on her mental and physical health, writes Gwen Vickers

Casual work has left one support worker homeless and even contemplating suicide

I’m proud to have been a communication support worker supporting deaf learners in colleges for the best part of 30 years, and one of the first in this country. It’s a job I love, and one where I feel I can have a positive impact on my students – but it is also one that has become harder over the years. For most of my career in education, I’ve been on a casual contract with little or no job security, resulting in ever increasing pressure on both my mental and physical health.

I doubt students realise that many of them are taught by staff on insecure, casual contracts. These are people like me who don’t know from year to year, term to term, or even from month to month, whether they will have a job or how much they might earn


More on this: Casual FE staff struggling to make ends meet, says UCU

Quick read: College teacher pay continues to drop

Background: Lecturers urge colleges not to hide behind government on pay


Homeless

I think most of my own students would be shocked to know that their communicator is not only on one of these contracts but had also been made homeless due to her precarious working situation. Yet this is what happened to me after I was recently forced to leave my rented home and enter temporary accommodation.

As many in my situation can confirm, banks don’t want to offer mortgages to people on casual contracts as it’s impossible to plan and budget when you don’t know how many hours you’ll be working or what your salary will be at any given time.

Without the prospect of the long-term security of a mortgage, I’ve been forced to pay for privately rented accommodation that ironically costs far more that a mortgage would have done if I had been able to get one. 

No savings

As my salary is never the same from month to month and depends on the hours I’m able to get, I don’t have the luxury of savings as whatever money I earn goes out straight away. I have no cushion for when I’m not working, if I need money in an emergency, or want to visit my 92-year-old father 300 miles away. Any additional hours are usually limited to when the college is short-staffed, and the hours soon drop back when replacements are found.

Even the temporary accommodation I currently find myself in might not be an option for long, as I’m apparently not deemed vulnerable enough to stay there. This is despite suffering from a chronic health condition and depression. Things were so bad when I was at my lowest that I even contemplated suicide. It’s no way to live.

It’s a struggle every day of the year but the holidays are particularly stressful. Times like Christmas, summer and bank holidays all mean zero hours of work and therefore zero income at a time when costs go up. Christmases are rarely happy when you’re not being paid and have no guarantee that your hours won’t change when the college reopens.

Delaying having children

It’s so sad when I see young, female colleagues having to delay having children because they cannot afford to take time off work without even basic financial support such as maternity pay. If colleges insist on exploiting staff on contracts with no set hours or regular pay, these people might never settle down, buy a house or even plan for their future.

It can’t be right for a sector as important as further education to be exploiting us in this way and basing students' learning on such an insecure workforce, without financial stability or the ability to plan for any kind of future.

It’s probably too late to impact on my career, but for the sake of staff entering the profession or those contemplating a career in further education, the students and society itself, something must change.

Gwen Vickers is a communication support worker in London

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