More than 1,000 people in Scottish colleges are working under controversial zero-hours contracts.
The figures, uncovered by the Further Education Lecturers Association (EIS-FELA), show that 1,089 individuals were on the contracts at the beginning of this academic year. More than 60 per cent of the workers were women. The union has labelled zero-hours contracts an "abomination" and called for them to be eradicated from the sector.
The contracts, which offer no security or guarantee of working hours or future employment, have come under fire after their use by large corporations was exposed by the media.
According to EIS-FELA, Scottish universities and FE colleges are issuing increasing numbers of zero-hours contracts to meet their short-term staffing needs. Both lecturers and support staff are being employed in this way.
Of the 30 colleges that responded to the union's request for information, 18 admitted to using the contracts. Only six of those said that there were college-wide policies for informing staff of planned reductions to their hours.
The majority of colleges did say, however, that zero-hours contract holders could have access to redundancy consultation and compensation, and the same pension as other staff.
Penny Gower, president of EIS-FELA, said: "Zero-hours contracts, in all their different incarnations, are an abomination in the further education sector, which is already one of the most casualised workforces in Scotland.
"This national survey on the use of zero-hours contracts in FE highlights how widely they are used in colleges. We will continue to fight the use of these contracts in FE until we win and these discriminatory contracts are eradicated."
The colleges with the highest numbers of zero-hours contracts at the beginning of August last year were West College Scotland (182 staff), Glasgow Clyde College (136 staff) and Moray College UHI (133 staff).
Audrey Cumberford, principal of West College Scotland, told TESS that it was no longer using the contracts.
Susan Walsh, principal of Glasgow Clyde College, said that the contracts were a "convenient vehicle to demonstrate commitment to staff while accommodating the variable nature of teaching timetables", adding: "All temporary staff receive exactly the same entitlements as permanent staff around holidays, continuing professional development and other staff benefits."
She explained that the merger process that created the college had prompted the use of zero-hours contracts, because an agreement had been made with the trade unions not to use permanent contracts to fill vacancies until the fate of existing staff was clear.
Anne Lindsay, acting principal at Moray College UHI, also said that staff on zero-hours contracts received benefits and could potentially switch to regular contracts. "We would not intend to have people on supply long- term," she explained.
Ms Gower of EIS-FELA, who works at Edinburgh College, said that during the merger process there, the union discovered that a number of lecturers, predominantly female, were on zero-hours contracts. "The branch has opposed the rollover of these for employees of the merged college, and will continue to do so," she said.
Su Breadner, director for organisational development and communications at the college, said that 16 lecturers there were employed on the contracts, which equated to "2 per cent of the teaching body". She added: "These people are effectively freelance staff who. we have traditionally turned to when emergency cover is required. However, we appreciate the limitations of these contracts and are seeking to reduce our reliance on them."
Employment law specialist Noele McClelland, a partner at Thorntons, a law firm in Dundee, told TESS that the contracts were useful, particularly when colleges were revising their provision and staffing. "With colleges merging, it takes time to ascertain the correct shape of the workforce," she said. "Many strategic decisions are being taken. so the use of such contracts allows for flexibility."
Colleges Scotland refused to condemn the practice, saying that it was a matter for individual employers to consider.
Similarly, a spokesperson for the Scottish government said that colleges were "autonomous institutions that set terms and conditions for their own staff".
The Procurement Reform Bill going through the Scottish Parliament would encourage good employment practices by "allowing a company's approach to workforce-related matters to be considered when assessing the suitability of a company to bid for public sector contracts", the spokesperson added.