It’s amazing that Sports Direct is trying to kick back against Ed Miliband’s criticism of its zero-hours employment policy.
He is acting on a promise he made months ago, meaning the firm has had plenty of time to finish “reviewing, updating and improving [its] core employment documents and procedures” and has no excuse for keeping 85 per cent of its workforce – that’s 17,000 people – on zero-hours contracts.
There are good reasons for allowing employers to offer work on zero-hours contracts. According to our good friend Wikipedia, “Zero-hour contracts may be ideal for some people such as retirees and students who want occasional earnings and are able to be entirely flexible about when they work”.
Does Sports Direct’s workforce fall into that category?
Vox Political is willing to suggest the answer is no.
Wikipedia goes on to say: “People in the general working population, including those with mortgages and responsibility for supporting a family, run the risk of unpredictable hours and earnings. The possibility of the use of such contracts by management as a tool to reward or reprimand employees for any reason or no reason raises issues about how workers can adequately assert their employment rights or maintain decent employment relations.”
In addition, the knock-on effect on in-work benefits means that people on zero-hours contracts could be worse-off than if they were claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (the catch being, of course, that they can’t claim JSA if they leave such a job because they would be sanctioned off the benefit for at least a month before they’d even received anything).
Back in April, Labour said workers on zero-hours contracts should not be obliged to be available outside contracted hours; be free to work for other employers; have a right to compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice; have ‘clarity’ from their employer about their employment status, terms and conditions; have the right to request a contract with a ‘minimum amount of work’ after six months, that could only be refused if employers could prove their business could not operate any other way; and have an automatic right to a fixed-hours contract after 12 months with the same employer.
In a TV interview at the time, Ed Miliband described these as “Victorian conditions at work,” a criticism he has now levelled directly at Sports Direct.
He said Sports Direct “has predictable turnover. It has big profits but, for too many of its employees, it is a terrible place to work”.
“We cannot go on with an economy that allows businesses to use zero-hours contracts as the standard way of employing people month after month, year after year,” he said.
“These Victorian practices have no place in the 21st Century.”
Predictably, Sports Direct has tried to attack Mr Miliband’s credibility but its line – “With enemies like these, who needs friends?” – is incredibly weak.
The BBC tells us this is intended to draw attention to the adverse publicity that the mass media has focused on Mr Miliband over the past couple of weeks; the claims that some members of his own party want him to step down due to bad poll ratings.
There’s just one flaw in this argument: Ed Miliband cannot be a liability to the Labour Party when he is setting the political agenda.
It’s such a big flaw, that we should probably have it again: Ed Miliband is setting the political agenda in this country. He is the only leader of a main political party who is currently able to speak on an issue with any credibility at all.
The Conservatives have struck back at Mr Miliband’s comments by saying they are addressing the zero-hours issue, and claiming that Labour did nothing about it for 13 years (between 1997 and 2010). This is a perfect illustration of the point, because Tory policy recently changed, meaning that jobseekers on Universal Credit will be stripped of their benefits if they refuse to take zero-hours jobs and – as the graph at the top of this article shows, zero-hours employment dropped off by a quarter (25 per cent) during Labour’s time in office, but has proliferated since the Tory-led Coalition arrived, rising to nearly four times its level in 2010.
All of the above leads us to one unavoidable question: If you were a Sports Direct employee on a zero-hours contract, where would your vote go?
Unless you were a retiree (highly unlikely) or a student, the logical answer is to vote for Labour; the Conservatives and, by proxy, Liberal Democrats have supported a massive increase in the use of these contracts and UKIP is uber-Tory, meaning people could expect no better if it formed part of any future government.
So it really is amazing that Sports Direct has attacked Labour for criticising its zero-hours policy.
All the company has done is give Labour a potential 17,000 extra voters.
Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike
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