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Oxford professors win gig economy tribunal

Oxford University wrongly classified two creative writing professors, the tribunal found

Creative writing professors who were employed as gig workers by Oxford University should have had employee status, a tribunal has ruled.

Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams, who have worked at Oxford since 2008 and 2007 respectively, both taught the Master of Studies (MSt) in Creative Writing.

In 2022, both Jolly and Abrams brought a claim against Oxford University for employing them as gig workers on fixed-term personal services contracts, which they claimed denied them their working rights.

The professors had argued that their employment status was misclassified since 2018.

According to their lawyers, Oxford told them it would offer more appropriate contracts in a letter to the Society of Authors in April 2022, but their contracts were not renewed.

The duo's lawyers argued to the tribunal that Jolly and Abrams should be offered employee status due to the nature of their work.

Jolly and Abrams claimed that their contracts gave rise to the expectation that they would return at each academic year and teach the course full-time for its entirety, as laid out by the tutor handbooks.

Due to the changing numbers of students that take up the MSt, Oxford University employed the professors on a casual basis to be flexible to demand.

The tribunal hearing ruled that the professors should be classed as employees because they were engaged on fixed-term contracts.

Similar cases have been brought against Royal Mail, which is currently being sued by its employees over their employment status.

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Ryan Bradshaw, senior associate solicitor at Leigh Day, who represented the professors, told HR magazine that the case shows that gig working is not suited to the education sector.

He said: “I don’t think there is a future in gig work.

“The organisation has mischaracterised the employment they have with their staff. They need to look at the way contracts have been managed, and the written agreement with their staff, in a way that reflects the work that they’re doing accurately.”

Bradshaw added that casualisation in education is an issue that needs tackling.

He continued: “It’s got to be a wake-up call, not just to the institutions for these contracts but to the unions, that this is an issue that requires tackling. 

“The breach of their legal obligations here was abundantly clear, and it’s likely to be reflected widely across higher education.”

Read more: Royal Mail sued over drivers' gig economy status

Alison Gair, head of employment at Clifton Ingram, told HR magazine that wrongly classifying workers could leave employers open to claims of unfair dismissal.

She said: “If an employer incorrectly classifies an individual as self-employed, when in fact they are an employee, the employer could find itself facing claims for unfair dismissal, holiday pay or sick pay, for instance.  

“There are also tax implications: employees and workers should be taxed at source through PAYE, but self-employed individuals are usually responsible for their own tax affairs.”

Gair added that employers should consider the practicalities of its employees’ work when deciding their employment status.

She continued: “It is important to remember that the employment tribunals, courts and HMRC look at how the relationship works in practice, rather than the level that has been given to any contract.  

“Therefore, an employer should carefully consider the practical arrangements it is entering into with an individual.”