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Brydn Webb / IdealInsight

A ban on zero-hours contracts - a victory for Irish unions

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Irish unions have won a significant victory for the lowest paid, and most insecure, workers.
Two warehouse workers

This week, following sustained union campaigning, Irish legislation came into force which bans zero-hours contracts and secures other key rights for workers in insecure employment. 

This is ground-breaking, and gives added impetus to the UK union campaigns to ban zero-hours contracts. TUC analysis shows that there are 850,000 workers in the UK trapped on zero-hours contracts. 

Patricia King, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, described the legislation as “one of the most significant pieces of employment law in 20 years”.

Irish unions have won three key rights for zero-hours workers, that UK workers don’t yet have:

  1. Zero–hour contracts are now banned, in almost all circumstances.
  2. Workers have the right to compensation from their employer if they turn up for a shift but are sent home without work.
  3. Workers are entitled to guaranteed hours of work that reflect their normal working week.

Key problems faced by zero-hours workers in the UK

Zero-hours contract workers do not have guaranteed, specified working hours, despite often working regular hours. Zero-hours contracts often don’t reflect the true nature of the employment relationship. Other problems include:

  • Employers having complete discretion over working hours. Workers must make themselves available for work at their boss's request. They are effectively on call constantly.
  • Zero-hours contract workers face great uncertainty about their working hours and income, making it harder to plan their finances and other needs such as childcare.
  • Workers have reported being denied bank loans and mortgages because of the lack of guaranteed hours in their contracts.
  • Job insecurity triggers stress and anxiety amongst many workers, who have bills to pay and families to support.
  • These workers are much less likely to receive key employment rights than they are legally entitled to, such as sick and holiday pay.
  • Workers who raise workplace issues or are unable to work when required by the employer, will often find their working hours reduced as a form of punishment.

The campaign to ban zero-hours contracts in the UK

In many workplaces, unions are negotiating agreements with employers that prevent the use of zero-hours contracts, making sure that workers have greater financial and job security.

The Low Pay Commission is an independent body that advises the government about the National Minimum Wage. It has written to the government advising it to adopt almost identical measures to those set out in the Irish legislation. It has also suggested that workers should have a right to reasonable notice of their work schedule. 

The Low Pay Commission recognises that there is a problem with “one sided flexibility” in the labour market, which enables employers to have an “on demand” workforce, while minimising their obligations to the people who work for them.

The UK government must do more

The government recently published a Good Work Plan in response to the 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. The recommendations from both the review and the plan are inadequate. They fail to take any measures which will guarantee greater job security for people working on zero-hours contracts. 

The government proposes introducing the ‘right to request’ - a more stable and predictable contract after six months in the job. We have repeatedly said the ‘right to request’ is no right at all. It provides workers with the option to ask, but no right to receive, so the power dynamic remains firmly in favour of the employer.

Nevertheless, the government is likely to introduce an employment bill to implement some of the other recommendations in its plan. The TUC will continue to press for a ban on zero-hours contracts to be included in this legislation.

An alternative to zero-hours contracts is possible

The UK government has fostered an environment where businesses can operate with very limited obligations to the people who work for them. They defend this business model by saying it allows both employer and worker more flexibility to determine their working arrangements. 

This does not reflect reality: many people on zero-hours contracts are trapped in these jobs, unable to turn work down that their employer offers them. TUC research has shown that most zero-hours contract workers would prefer a contract with guaranteed hours.

The Irish unions’ campaign and subsequent legislation has demonstrated the viability of banning zero-hours contracts. Trade unions negotiating agreements with employers, to provide greater job security for their workforce, is evidence that it is possible to operate a business without having a brazen disregard for the workforce.

The government should recognise the weight of evidence from home and abroad that a ban on zero-hours contracts is long overdue.

Ban zero-hours contracts Too many workers are being denied job security, sick pay and holiday pay - and insecure work is out of control.