• Chartwells staff in campus catering facilities including Eat Central receive inadequate sick pay, forcing ill staff to come to work.
  • Disparity between contracts worsens the injustice; Unite the Union demands equality for all staff on campus.

The majority of catering staff in campus food facilities do not receive any sick pay for the first three days of illness, say representatives from Unite the Union. This forces staff to choose between coming to work when ill or being unable to pay their bills, causing concern not only for the employees but also increasing the risk of illness spreading on campus. The Union is launching a campaign for better and equal sick pay for all employees.

For 11 years, University of Sussex campus catering staff have worked under a “two tier” benefits system since the University outsourced catering services to Chartwells Catering in 2013. Staff previously employed by the University of Sussex received a TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings, Protection of Employment Rights) contract, meaning that the conditions for sick pay were held over for these workers. Chartwells has since offered contracts to new employees which did not include enhanced sick pay schemes but instead included only Statutory Sick Pay, which is the legal minimum provision in the UK. Unite the Union, who recently negotiated a recognition agreement with Chartwells Catering, claim this is “blatantly unfair” as it “risks plunging people into poverty [due to] the impossible choice between taking care of their physical and mental health or being able to pay bills or buy food.” 

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) amounts to only £109.40 a week. However, according to GOV.UK, to claim the sick pay employees must meet two criteria. The first is that employees must be sick for at least four days before they are paid, after which they are not paid for those first three days. The second is that employees must earn at least £123 a week, meaning most workers on zero-hour contracts are ineligible for SSP. On the other hand, the few remaining TUPE’d catering staff receive sick pay that matches their wages and is paid from the first day they are off sick. This policy not only applies to TUPE’d workers and other campus staff but also to Chartwells’ own management staff. An anonymous employee on campus said: “We are all catering assistants doing the same job [at] the same rate, therefore they should provide everyone with the same benefits. Managers get sick pay, so why not the rest of us?”

The Branch Secretary of Unite the Union, Daniel Hyndman, told The Badger that the Union has “really good […] early days relationships with local managers [of Chartwells]” and that the Union will soon engage in “proper initial negotiation meeting[s] with Chartwells management” to improve catering assistant contracts. Hyndman believes that the fact this dispute is occurring on a university campus lends the Union significant leverage. “[We are in] a progressive, enlightened, higher education institution” Hyndman says, arguing that student and university support can supply much needed pressure towards Chartwells. 

Chartwells is the nationwide education catering branch of the larger international firm Compass Catering, which boasted profits of £1.89bn in 2023. Unite hopes that Chartwells will agree to the demands and be held financially responsible for providing sick pay in line with other university staff. Hyndman believes it is “hard for Chartwells to plead poverty” on this issue, but fears that they may ask the University to bear the burden of providing enhanced sick pay. 

This issue affects not just the workers, but everyone who eats in Chartwells-operated facilities. This includes Eat Central, the Arts Piazza, Botanical Cafe, ACCA, and most other eateries on campus. By making it difficult for staff to stay home when sick, Chartwells increases the risk of spreading illness to staff and students. 

One employee told The Badger: “Those who have vulnerable family members, or are vulnerable themselves, would like to feel reassured that illness will not be spread at work. Without sick pay, illness is more likely to spread, putting lots of people at risk! If you’ve got no choice but to come in when you’re ill, it’ll have a knock on effect on everyone, Chartwells staff or not!”

Hyndman emphasised the University of Sussex’s “massive stake” in this dispute. The University’s 2025 Strategic Framework lays out a commitment to five core values, including “kindness” meaning all those on campus “care for each other”, “integrity” meaning the treatment of all staff and students with “dignity, respect and courtesy” as well as the “courage […] [to] speak out on issues that concern us.” 

Unite the Union presented a statement to the Equality and Diversity Inclusion Committee last month, emphasising that the existing contracts lead to conditions that are “unsafe, unhealthy and unfair to both customers and workers.” Unite are in the early stages of negotiations with Chartwells. 
Commenting on the topic, a Sussex spokesperson told The Badger “Following the signing in January of the formal union recognition agreement between our campus catering partner, Chartwells, and the Unite and UNISON trades unions, plans are now underway for the election of representatives. We understand that once these elections are complete, then Chartwells and their trades unions can discuss this important matter.”  

Images taken by Joseph Foudy

Categories: Campus News News

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