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The rise of zero-hours contracts: These figures from the Office for National Statistics may be showing only one-fifth of the picture, according to new research.

The rise of zero-hours contracts: These figures from the Office for National Statistics may be showing only one-fifth of the picture, according to new research.

The rise of the zero-hours contract must be deeply disturbing to all those with an interest in fair employment practices.

The arrangement is that an employee agrees to be available for work whenever required, but with no set number of hours or times of work specified. The employee is expected to be on-call at all times but is paid only for the number of hours that are actually worked.

There appears to be no pension scheme, no sickness cover, no holiday entitlement – no rights other than those laid down by health and safety regulations (which the government is trying to ditch) and the National Minimum Wage Act (also under threat from the Conservative-led government).

Also, the system is open to abuse by managers, who can use it to reward some employees (and the term is used in its loosest possible sense) with extra hours or punish others with fewer.

And how, exactly, is an employee supposed to be engaged in, and enthusiastic about, a job where they are treated as a disposable commodity, to be picked up and thrown away whenever it is expedient?

It seems possible that there is an argument in favour of zero-hours contracts – but only for employees who want to top-up another income stream; people who want occasional earnings and are flexible about when they work. The problem here is that it seems likely employers will want these people to work at times when it will be hard to meet the commitment.

For anyone else – including people who are unemployed, penniless, and need the certainty of a properly-constituted employment contract with set hours, pay and conditions, there seems to be no point in taking up such a contract at all. Yet they are proliferating across the UK.

Is the Department of Work and Pensions, through the Job Centre Plus network, forcing these conditions on jobseekers?

Such a situation might be a huge boost to employment figures, but it would also explain why average pay has fallen so drastically in recent years and the economy has failed – so abjectly – to reignite.

Today (Monday) it is being reported that more than a million UK workers are on zero-hours contracts – four times official estimates.

The BBC is reporting that 14 per cent of these could not earn a basic standard of living. If Job Centres are forcing people into these jobs, via the sanctions regime, this is scandalous. Perhaps it is permitted by law, but this would only mean that the government should have a duty to ensure that jobs which are taken under the threat of sanction are capable of providing this basic standard.

Worse still for the government is the allegation, in research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, that public sector firms – those with government contracts – are more likely to use zero-hours contracts than private companies.

This is particularly prevalent in education and healthcare.

And how is the benefits system affected by these contracts?

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese told the BBC: “Zero-hours contracts cannot be used simply to avoid an employer’s responsibilities to its employees.” But isn’t that exactly how they are being used? Don’t the number of people saying they can’t make ends meet, and the wider state of the economy, indicate exactly that?

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis seems to have got it right when he said: “The vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain.

“The growing number of zero-hours contracts also calls into question government unemployment figures.”

Business secretary Vince Cable has ordered a review of the zero-hours contracts system, to take place over the summer. He played down fears of abuse, saying evidence was “anecdotal” and adding that “it’s important our workforce remains flexible” (in employment terms, this means all the power is with the employer, while the actual worker has to adapt to the circumstances foisted upon them).

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham called for zero-hours contracts to be banned, back in April this year.

It seems clear that they are unsafe and open to abuse. But would an all-out ban be appropriate?

Would it not be wiser for Job Centres to continue advertising them, but with no obligation to recommend them to jobseekers (and certainly no requirement to force anyone into applying for them), and with a requirement to warn anyone considering taking up such a position about the possibility that they will not be able to survive on the pay provided?

This might go some way to redressing the balance of power with employers; without the coercive power of the government supporting these contracts, they might try more traditional (and fairer) employment models.

This is a subject worth more examination. What are your thoughts?