Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Should zero-hours contracts be shown zero-tolerance?

Vince Cable told Radio 2 that Miliband's
proposals are not "practical".
A great deal is being said about zero-hours contracts at the moment, and rightly so.

Ed Miliband has today promised to end the "epidemic" of zero-hours contract that "undermines family life". Labour has announced today it proposes a new law by which anyone working on such a contract for more than 12 weeks will, "if [they]'re working regular hours...get a regular contract."

This doesn't go far enough for some.  Plaid Cymru has unequivocally committed itself to "say NO to Zero-hour contracts." While it actually appears, on further investigation, that Plaid is actually opposed to mandatory zero-hour contracts - how helpful is tough talk when it reduces complex realities to easy soundbites?

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I should say that I have a fair bit of experience with zero-hour contracts. First up, the negative. After my wife was made redundant from a technical support job, she managed to find some employment working as a junior graphic designer for a national company (which I won't name). In spite of it being a leading business within the industry, not only she but all new staff were given zero-hour contracts. In addition to regular hours, staff were expected to do extra work at weekends and evenings, often at very short notice. Such basic entitlements as holiday pay and sick leave could be overlooked. Everyone was dispensable - and thoroughly aware of it. Job security was non-existent aside from for those who, by historical accident, had a permanent contract. The employer needed no reason to show anyone the door - hardly the environment in which employees were likely to perform to their full potential.

My wife, at least, was highly skilled and her consistently high quality work helped - until, of course, she became pregnant. Informing her manager was tantamount to writing her own P45. The final few weeks of her pregnancy, during which she was forced by the JobCentre to "look" for jobs in spite of no employer being likely to take on anyone whose pregnancy was so far advanced, were unnecessarily hard. I still find it difficult to forgive DWP officials for the unnecessary hurt they caused with their bullying - but the zero hour contract played its role too.

My brother, Adrian, has also had negative experiences at the hands of employers that can only be described as abusive and exploitative. Since he left the Army (having served in the Balkans, among other places) he had a string of jobs, working in security, care/support work and factories, before deciding to return to education. Almost all of these "jobs" were on zero-hour contracts; almost all of his employers were simply looking for maximum flexibility for themselves while offering little to the employee in return. The companies in question would use such contracts for all their staff, and one insisted on employees not working elsewhere in spite of being unable to guarantee any work at all.

However, I've also experienced a more positive aspect. For over 16 years I worked in the NHS. While a student, I worked for the nurse bank - which gave me financial means, vital experience and flexible hours. For anyone doing a health-related course, such opportunities are immensely valuable - arguably more so even than placements as they allow insights into the working realities of a multi-disciplinary team. Our employer benefited from our own skill and experience; we benefited from flexible work patterns and being able to remain solvent throughout our studies!

It's not only students who benefit, however. It's often parents with young families, who can only work particular nights and weekends - and don't want to work at all during school holidays. Or it's someone who is taking a career break for whatever reason, who needs to work a minimum number of days a year (at times to suit them) in order to maintain their registration. Or it's a community nurse who does a shift a week in a ward environment to keep their skills up to date. There were also retired people on the nurse bank - and one man who ran his own fledgling business who worked a few shifts a month to ensure he had a reasonably healthy income. Actually, there are many reasons why people might want flexible working arrangements, and not be obligated to work set hours every week. Zero-hour contracts do not have to "undermine family life" but can actually enhance it.

Certainly, there was a time in my life when it worked to my benefit, and I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon now.

However, as a former UNISON rep, I also see a need for exploitative employers to be challenged. We cannot allow for the development of a culture in which workers are simply undervalued disposable commodities. The needs of businesses themselves should not trump employee rights - often compromised when they are reduced from the status of "employee" to "worker". Employees cannot be allowed to treat people as less than human; to exploit them at busy times and then dispose of them when business is quiet.

But what will Labour's policy achieve? More than likely little other than such unscrupulous employers dismissing workers after 12 weeks, greater use of fixed-terms contracts and those who can only work flexibly opting not to work at all. The apparent automatic upgrade of a zero-hour contract to something more substantial may not be in everyone's interests - although workers being empowered to opt-in would be a better proposal. We need some common-sense on zero-hour contracts - to challenge the maltreatment of workers while recognising the benefits for many.

Fixed-term contracts are, to my mind, almost as big a problem as zero-hours contracts. They offer very little job security - usually up to 13 weeks only - but don't allow the same degree of flexibility for the employee and are often used to reduce employee rights. As a UNISON rep I dealt with countless abuses of successive fixed-term contracts - with implications for pay, holidays and parity with colleagues. (I should add that there were some fellow reps who took the view that temporary "workers" were not equivalent to "employees" and therefore were not entitled to representation in spite of paying their dues. Discrimination is not only the preserve of employers.)

Fortunately Vince Cable has stepped up to the challenge. Having during the last two years looked to expose loopholes in zero-hour contracts, he is committed to "tightening the screws on rogue employers who try to abuse workers on zero-hours contracts [while] ensuring there is access to justice for workers treated unfairly." Today he told Radio 2: "I just don't see the Miliband proposals as being practical because we know there are large numbers of companies that don't have constant work and there are large numbers of people who prefer flexibility." Cable has also pointed to the fact that 700,000 people are on zero-hours contracts - roughly one in 50 workers. That figure is still too high, but an outright ban seems the wrong way to improve the situation.

Labour's contribution shows a lack of foresight and would appear to be little more than gesture politics.The problem is not with the contracts themselves, but how employers use them. It's a question of how people are treated. So, by all means, let's see some co-ordinated and sensible suggestions to improve workers' rights and tackle unfairness - but let's direct this zero-tolerance talk towards exploitative employers rather than flexible working arrangements.