The number of people working on so-called zero hours contracts has risen to 1.4 million since May 2010. In theory, zero hours contracts are a very useful and flexible tool for employers, so that they can ask employees, at short notice, to work any number of hours a week, or to work no hours at all. It follows of course that the employer has no obligation to pay the employee if they don’t work that week.
Some companies, like Sports Direct, which here in Lincoln has just reopened at a new location, employ 80% of their workforce on zero hours contracts, despite that workforce working largely predictable and regular hours.
The problems with zero hours contracts are not difficult to spot. Technically, people are ’employed’ for the purposes of the job figures, but employees do not necessarily actually have any work or indeed any money coming in. Those on zero hours contracts don’t know how any hours they will be working in any given week, so it’s impossible to budget or to plan. Some weeks, they may literally work zero hours, meaning there’s nothing at all going into the family bank account. Some employees are only told on a day-by-day basis whether or not they are needed at work and able to earn any money that day.
I have been told about the anxious wait by the phone between 7am and 8am, the frantic rush to arrange childcare if work comes in and the disappointment and despair when that phone call doesn’t come at all. Because there is no contractual guarantee of a certain, minimum number of hours, there is no compensation when shifts are cancelled at very short notice. Equally, sometimes people feel under tremendous pressure to accept a very high number of hours when work is offered, for fear that they will not be asked to work again if they turn down the request. What’s more, normal working rights, that we now accept as standard in Britain, such as the right to sick pay, are often not included in zero hours contracts.
These kind of employment practices are like something from a different era. They’re exploitative and the uncertainty they create is causing genuine hardship for people up and down the country. In some cases, they’re pushing families into poverty and increasing the already large reliance on foodbanks. This is Britain in the 21st century; we don’t let families get treated like this, it’s unnecessary and it’s wrong. We believe in better.
All of which is why I was very glad that, last Saturday, Ed Miliband declared that the Victorian management practices which exploit zero-hours contracts have no place in the modern world and will be banned by a Labour government. He promised that the next Labour government will legislate to give such employees the legal right to a regular contract if they are working regular hours, to refuse demands that they are available over and above their contracted hours, and to compensation when shifts are cancelled at short notice.
The prevalence of zero hours contracts is a problem that is well-recognised and public awareness of the issue is high. That said, the current Government have not taken action to end the exploitation. All it has done is to introduce a minor change that stops employers from being able to require zero hours workers to work exclusively for them. This is no where near enough and it doesn’t go anywhere near the heart of the problem.
It simply isn’t right that our economy allows businesses to use thousands of zero-hours contracts as the standard way of employing people month on month, when, like Sports Direct, those companies have a substantial workforce and a relatively predictable turnover. Time for change please.