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Sheffield universities ranked among the worst in the UK on workers’ rights

Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield received scores between 0% and 10% on workers’ rights in People and Planet’s annual league table.

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Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield came in 44th and 60th places respectively on the People & Planet league table.

Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash.

People and Planet, the largest student network in the UK campaigning on social and environmental justice, released their annual league table last Thursday where universities are assessed on their sustainability and environmental impact.

The league table, started in 2007, is the only project that ranks universities on their environmental impact and uses publicly available information from universities and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This year, 154 universities were ranked on 13 criteria and awarded a First, a 2:1, a 2:2, a Third or a Fail.

Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) received a 2:1 and came joint 44th, tied with Cardiff University. Despite scoring 100% for Carbon Reduction and its auditing procedures, the university performed poorly in Carbon Management (5%), Workers’ Rights (10%) and Ethical Investments (11%).

In 2020 SHU faced protests led by the Palestinian Society about the university’s decision to begin a partnership with Selfit Medical, an Israeli start-up. Staff and students are concerned about the university choosing to partner with companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine.

SHU’s Students’ Union passed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) policy in 2019 after students raised concerns over cooperation between the university and companies such as JCB, who produce bulldozers used by Israeli Defence Forces to demolish buildings on Palestinian land and BAE systems, one of the world’s largest arms companies.

‘'While few universities in the UK have much to boast about when it comes to policies that put people and the planet first, it is clear that Sheffield Hallam can, and must, do better,” said the committee of Hallam UCU.

The UCU branch has drawn attention to many problems in the past, ranging from investments with arms firms and companies that profit from the illegal occupation of Palestine to a lack of staff engagement on questions of sustainability, through to the relatively widespread use of insecure zero-hour contacts.

Last month Now Then revealed that of the 1,873 staff on zero-hour contracts at the University of Sheffield, 1,244 are women. At Hallam, while there was little gender disparity, of the 4,689 total staff at the university 866 are on zero-hour contracts.

The University of Sheffield (UoS) scored even lower on People and Planet’s table, finishing in 60th place and getting a 2:2.

UoS did well to achieve 99% in Education for Sustainability, 87.5% for Carbon Reduction policies and 72% for Ethical Investment.

Despite this the Students’ Union slamming the university for partnering with HSBC, who are Europe’s second-largest financier of fossil fuels and who provide billions of pounds of services to companies that sell equipment to the Israeli government. The University of Sheffield also received the lowest possible score of 0% on Workers’ Rights.

A UoS spokesperson told Now Then: "We're pleased that our People and Planet ranking has improved this year and particularly the recognition for our work on embedding education for sustainable development, carbon reductions and ethical investments.

"We know there is much more to do and we'll be continuing to work hard on sustainability commitments to ensure a year-on-year improvement to our ranking".

The spokesperson added: “The way the Workers' Rights criteria is measured does not currently take into account a number of factors which we are already working to improve at the University.”

Annie Lawson-Foley from Sheffield’s People and Planet society said it was “really embarrassing as a student and the higher-ups should be embarrassed too – it’s sad it isn’t surprising.”

“Unis have massive purchasing power and don’t always choose to buy from ethical sources. Sometimes they buy from places with poor labour laws and workers’ rights... It’s interesting that their ethical investment was so high, they have policies to exclude fossil fuel and arms companies from their investments but nothing about companies that break international law, particularly those subject to the BDS campaign.

Manchester Metropolitan University Elizabeth Gaskell Building geograph org uk 2624443

Manchester Metropolitan University topped the People & Planet league table.

David Dixon on Wikimedia Commons.

“They didn’t get very high points for reinvesting into green industries either – what’s the point in divesting from fossil fuel companies if they don’t reinvest it into green companies?”

The low scores for Workers’ Rights comes after both universities faced three days of strikes at the start of December, after UCU members voted to take industrial action.

UoS staff are facing cuts to their pensions, some by as much as 36%, and the upcoming closure of the Archaeology department could see many staff made redundant.

Staff at both universities walked out over a pay and conditions dispute and UCU members across the UK are expected to walk out next term as well.

Sheffield Hallam University did not respond to a request for comment from Now Then.

Zac Larkham is a rent strike organiser and student at Sheffield Hallam University.

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