Zero tolerance needed on abuse of zero hours contracts

Issue date
28 Oct 2013

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggest the national figure for zero hours contracts could be approximately 1 million. Pro rata, that would indicate an estimate of circa 39,000 North East workers on zero hour contracts. Concerned MPs in the North East have highlighted the issues surrounding this rise in parliament. 

High profile campaigns from 38 Degrees are highlighting businesses, such as Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct, and their heavy use of zero hour contracts. Elsewhere, McDonald’s, Burger King, Amazon and Domino’s Pizza are high profile employers also extensively using this method of employment. While zero hours contracts are often synonymous with bad practice in parts of the private sector, local MP Julie Elliott’s Freedom of Information requests have revealed the prevalence of zero hour contracts within the public sector too. 

These contracts provide a challenge to workers, trade unions and legislators seeking to improve the quality of employment and reduce insecurity. While a minority of workers on such contracts welcome the flexibility, a clear majority face considerable insecurity, reduced employment rights, family pressures and depressed income as a consequence. Many view the re-emergence of zero hour contracts as part of the wider deregulation of labour and subsequent deterioration of working conditions.

Recently, more than 400 workers staged a series of walk-outs and industrial action in a protracted dispute over the use of agency staff whose zero-hours contracts gave limited guarantees on conditions at the Hovis bakery in Wigan.

The strikes were triggered after the company broke an agreement designed to limit the number of agency workers at the Lancashire bakery, so that people were only employed on “zero hours” contracts in absolute emergencies. After negotiations with the Baker Food and Allied Workers Union the company has now promised ‘parity pay’ with full-time employees for any agency employee who works at least 39 hours a week for 12 consecutive weeks. The deal also ensures that temporary labour shortages will be covered by existing employees using overtime, rather than agency staff. 

Another great win for organised labour and BFAWU. I have no doubt other trade unions were watching this dispute closely...

CIPD’s call for more guidance on the issue doesn’t go nearly far enough. The government must crack down on employers who are using zero-hours working as a way of cutting costs and boosting profit margins.Although the flexibility of zero hours contracts can benefit both employers and employees in some (very limited) circumstances, the increasing use of such contracts has left too many families insecure and exposed others to the risk of exploitation.

The TUC welcomes Ed Miliband’s proposals to ban employers from insisting zero-hours workers be available even when there is no guarantee of any work; stop zero hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business; and ending the misuse of zero hours contracts where employees are, in practice, working regular hours over a sustained period. 

Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced a review of the contracts, which is a start, but only if it results in the strong regulation necessary to stamp out this abuse.

Beth Farhat, Regional Secretary, Northern TUC