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May 4th, 2018:

More on Clarity Travel and AirBnB

When we sent an email to members last week about the less-than-loved policy forcing us to use Clarity Travel, we mentioned we had seen a Faculty email informing staff that they could no longer use AirBnB for university-related business, and they would not be reimbursed if they submitted receipts from AirBnB. Since this appeared to be policy that was (typically) partially and ineptly communicated, and – worse – to be retrospectively enacted, we promised we would come back to you.  We touched a nerve, because we have been deluged by comments and questions.

We have done a little digging, and we have some information to share. But before we get to the root of this non-policy that has not been negotiated or consulted on, we’d like to share with you some of the most important aspects that have been highlighted to us since last Friday:

  • Equal opportunities / discrimination: many staff have good reasons for looking for self-catering or apartment accommodation when travelling. Those with specific dietary needs or accommodation specification (potentially associated with disability or a medical condition) or travelling with carers have welcomed the flexibility of AirBnB.
  • While hotel-style self-catering accommodation can be found, it is often very expensive, or only available for week-long bookings. Shorter bookings can be made through AirBnB.
  • AirBnB have a facility for businesses called AirBnB for Work, which is not covered in the report below.
  • Edinburgh University (a fellow Russell Group institution) has a very sensible and grown-up policy in place that permits the use of AirBnB, with conditions, and also seems reasonable in terms of the use of its nominated travel company for trips under £300, or trips funded by external agencies.
  • AirBnB makes it possible for the increasing number of academics forced to self-fund research activities to attend conferences, work in the field, and present their work in the UK and abroad. Removing access to AirBnB will result in these activities being drastically curtailed, to the detriment of departments and individuals.

We invite further comments below: if you emailed in to the branch, we would love it if you would reproduce your comments here, so that management can see them.

And now, the digging:

Agenda Item 9, UoS Consultative Health and Safety Committee meeting, Monday 11 December 2017

In December 2017, the Consultative Health and Safety Committee received a paper from Cathy Day, the university’s Director of Health, Safety, and Risk, which purports to be a report on the use of AirBnB for university-related travel. It makes some interesting claims and reveals some of management’s reasonings for the recently communicated ban on any further use of AirBnB or other “unregulated providers.”

Item 3.1 of this paper reads:

In July 2017 the University appointed Clarity as their travel management company and then mandated that all air travel should be booked through them. There was no such mandate for accommodation but professional services personnel within Faculties such as Heads of Faculty Finance and Health & Safety Advisers have promoted the use of Clarity wherever possible and endeavoured to manage the issues raised by users over available options. One of those options is Air BnB which cannot currently be booked via the travel management system because Clarity do not have an arrangement to do so and nor do they have any means of checking the suitability, security or safety of accommodation on offer. Those preferring to use Air BnB therefore have to book their accommodation independently.

This appears to suggest that one of the reasons for not permitting the business use of AirBnB is that Clarity do not have a way of recouping “rent” (see here for a definition of “rent-seeking”) from them.

Item 3.2 of the paper reads:

All travellers at the University are required to complete a travel risk assessment and to implement measures to control the risk to as low as reasonably practicable. If undertaken as per the guidance provided this should be sufficient to enable the employee to fulfil their duty of care and to inform them whether the journey, accommodation, location is suitable or not. Checking and signing off this assessment enables the University to also fulfil its duty of care. There are good examples of travel risk assessments across the University. However, there is currently no central database and thus limited knowledge about how well travel risk assessments are completed and whether these are sufficiently checked and signed off.

This item suggests that the University’s risk assessments are sufficiently detailed to allow for the University’s and the employee’s duty of care to be fulfilled.

Item 3.3 of the paper reads:

Travel insurance provided by the University does not cover personal liability for damage caused to Air BnB properties because they are unregulated and in the eyes of the insurer are open to fraudulent claims. Home owners (hosts) may have suitable insurance to cover this but it is not a requirement of Air BnB so needs to be checked for each booking by the guest.

Again, this seems like there are mechanisms to ensure that a stay in AirBnB would present no financial risk to the university.

Item 3.4 caused us a little bit of pre-weekend amusement:

Two simple benchmarking exercises have taken place. The first carried out in September 2017 is attached at appendix A which included 20 large and complex companies within the within the UK of which the University of Southampton was one. The response was mixed…

The second benchmarking was undertaken in November 2017 with the Universities Safety & Health Association network. Very few said they had any policy on the use of it but those that did, either banned it or used Business Air BnB. The lack of responses indicated no definitive conclusion.

Appendix A is reproduced here.  It reveals that this “benchmarking exercise” was conducted by expat-academy.com. We note that this service organisation will conduct a benchmarking exercise for you if you email them with a question. Their website states:

Benchmarking Service: For any question you want to ask other GM [global mobility] professionals but can’t due to anti-trust, you can send them our way. We send your question, consolidate responses and distribute answers anonymously. Click HERE to email us and ask your question!

Slightly hilariously (at least to this blogger), expat-academy chose to benchmark us with Diageo, Pearsons, and Imperial Tobacco: those well-known academic research institutions which require their staff members to self-fund their business activities.

The “second benchmarking” conducted among universities is a bit more nebulous: a lack of responses, and “very few” saying they had any policy. No evidence of any exercise actually being carried out is produced.

Item 4 is where it gets maddening:

4.1 Strategic: This report endorses the University’s strategic goals of;

    • Collegiality – by improving the management of travel to ensure risks are identified and addressed.
    • Quality – by improving the experience, safety and security of those who travel on behalf of the University.
    • Reputation – by helping to ensure travel arrangements are well managed to avoid any reputation damage.
    • Sustainability – by reducing risks associated with travel, thus enabling the university to continue its research, promotional activities and attendance at important events.

4.2  Financial:The cost to the University in respect of lost reputation should anything occur at an event could be extremely damaging.

4.3 Equality and Legal: Equality legislation is often complimentary [sic] to that of Health and Safety with several aspects forming an integral part of good health and safety management such as the risks and environment affecting the disabled, expectant mothers, young and older people, cultural needs etc

4.4  Risk and Health & Safety This report reflects the health and safety management system in place at the time. Failure to identify and assess risks can often mean that inappropriate or insufficient measures have been implemented to control them.

4.5  Reputation Poor health and safety can seriously impact upon the reputation of the University. A serious incident resulting in a large fine, enforcement action or imprisonment could be extremely damaging to the University.

 

This item shows that the overriding consideration here is finance – not the financial cost to external funders or to self-funding staff of Clarity-bookable hotels and Clarity’s rent on top – but the potential cost to the University of some sort of reputational damage caused by its academics trashing an AirBnB property (see Item 3.3 above). The report makes no other reference to equality, or an equality impact assessment of such a policy, but our members have identified that this is a primary concern for them. It also states (Item 3.2 above) that the current risk assessment procedure is sufficient to both employer and employee, if properly carried out.

We will be taking this matter to the Joint Negotiating Committee on 4 June, so we would welcome further comments from members. We are particularly exercised that the policy is being enacted retrospectively, so causing more financial distress to employees. Let us know what you think in the comments box below.