By Chris Peace
Whenever the government is asked to ban or better regulate the use of zero hours contracts, the answer is also the same – that they offer flexibility to both employer and employee. For a very small number of workers, who have other means of financial support, this may be true. However, for most workers, where their zero hours contract is their only means of income, it is simply not the case and this false narrative of “mutual benefit” needs calling out.
Even before the pandemic, low wages were not enough for many to keep up with their cost of living, energy bills, travel, rent and food costs. To get by could be a stretch. Imagine not knowing if your basic weekly or monthly costs could be met, simply because your employer could not give you enough hours of work. Imagine making and committing to childcare costs or making arrangements for care for relatives so you could work, only to be sent home early because “business is quiet” or to be told hours before your shift is due to start that it has been cancelled. Imagine being asked to work longer hours at short notice and risk getting on the wrong side of your boss if you refused. The financial instability created by being on a zero hours contract does not simply result in the worry and reality of impoverishment. It also impacts on basics like renting a home, which is nigh on impossible in the private sector when a stable income cannot be demonstrated to a landlord. The pressure this puts on such workers and their families manifests in anxiety and stress, poor mental and physical health and general misery and unhappiness. Ultimately, zero hours contracts may result in better profit margins for the bosses, but at a potential cost to the public purse.
At Zero Hours Justice, we know that banning zero hours contracts is going to need political will. Whilst some political parties have been calling for them to be banned for some time, the current government shows no signs of doing so. We will continue to press for this, alongside the trade union movement, after all we are one of a minority of countries in Europe that hasn’t banned or restricted their use. They are now banned in Ireland in almost all circumstances and completely banned in New Zealand.
However, until such change can come from government, the Zero Hours Justice campaign is dedicated to doing all we can to improve and restrict their use to try to bring some improvement to the lives of zero hours workers.
To this effect we have developed our Fairer Hours Contracts standard and seek to persuade employers to adopt it. This would mean workers get a minimum of two weeks’ notice of their shift, and shifts cancelled at less than 2 weeks’ notice would still be paid in full. Fairer Hours accreditation also requires employers to give zero hours workers the right to request a fixed hours contract at any time as well as an annual review of actual hours worked with a view to providing a contract at or as close to the hours as soon as they can.
Good employers can lead the way in addressing what the government has yet failed to do by adopting our proposals. More importantly, the lives of hundreds and thousands of workers would be improved.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
In theory, for example, a zero hours worker could do twenty hours in one week and no work the next week.
In addition, employers are not required to give notice either of available work or cancelled shifts. According to research from the Living Wage Foundation, almost 40% of zero hours workers given less than a week's notice before shifts. Some even turn up for their shifts, expecting to work, only to be told that they are not needed and not being paid.
With such job and income insecurity, it can be difficult to plan your finances, especially when you do not know whether you will be able to pay your bills and feed your family from month to month. It surely cannot be right that the only way people can afford to live is by having their low, irregular pay topped by benefits. It can also be hard to make alternative arrangements for childcare or other caring responsibilities when work does become available at short notice.
The irony is that many zero hours workers actually do work regular hours, or a regular number of hours, without really knowing whether they will still have work the next day or the next week. We saw this during the pandemic, with people suddenly finding themselves without work and pay.
Zero Hours Justice therefore supports Labour's pledge to end "one-sided flexibility so all workers have stable, secure employment and mutually-agreed predictable working hours and shift patterns so they can plan their lives".
However, zero hours workers cannot wait until at least 2024 and a change in government. We therefore urge the Conservative government to fulfil its manifesto commitment and publish its employment bill, with a right to a more predictable contract for zero hours and variable hours workers.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
Zero hour contracts have always bee a source of job insecurity, with hours that are not guaranteed and that can be cancelled at short notice.
But, according to new research from the Trade Union Congress and Race on the Agenda, zero hour workers of BAME origin are more likely to affected by the lack of work, compared to white zero hour workers.
The research indicates that the proportion of zero hour workers of BAME origin (around 4.2%) is almost twice as high as the proportion of white zero hours workers (around 2.8%).
Amongst male zero hours workers, 4.1% are of BAME origin, compared to 2.5% who are white. Amongst female zero hours workers, 4.5% are of BAME origin, compared to around 3.2% who are white.
Supporters of zero hours contracts highlight the flexibility available to both employers and workers, who can choose to fit work around other commitments. Yet, according to a survey of 2,523 workers, including 435 of BAME origin, 50% of BAME workers have been allocated shifts and 45% have had shifts cancelled at less than 24 hours notice. This makes it difficult to plan financially or manage other responsibilities such as childcare.
On top of that, 40% of BAME workers on variable-hours or zero hour contracts reported that had been threatened with the loss of shifts if work was turned down, compared to 25% of white workers.
Across the board, zero hours workers were likely to be refused a more stable contract when they asked, regardless of ethnicity. However, of those who asked for and given a more stable contract, less than 5% were white and over 10% were of BAME origin. Of those who asked for and were refused a more stable contract, around 10% were white and over 20% were of BAME origin.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
The engineering magazine New Civil Engineer have reported that three major public sector organisations have introduced measures to make sure suppliers do not use zero hours contracts or, if absolutely necessary, use them appropriately.
The overwhelming reason for the change in supplier procurement policy appears to be one of safety concerns. Academic research has previously highlighted the risk to health of working on a zero hours contract.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
According to Office for National Statistics, between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of people in employment that were on zero hour contracts was less than 1%. In the early part of the millennium, the number of zero hours contracts actually fell, reaching a record low in 2004-2005, before increasing again. Last year, in the middle of a global pandemic, the number of people on zero hours contracts broke through the one million barrier.
In the 2019 election, the Conservative Party's pledged to introduce an employment bill that would include the right to a more secure contract for zero hour workers. In an implicit criticism of the government's failure to meet this manifesto commitment, the leaders of the G7 engagement groups wrote in their letter to the prime minister that "this isn't the time for leadership in name only".
By Pravin Jeyaraj
Zero Hours Justice would argue that the right time is now, as we emerge from a pandemic that has had a devastating effect on work and income of those on zero hours contracts.
For the past year or so, we have been contacted by many zero hours workers, who have ended up working predictable hours or employment patterns over many years, whilst being on a contract that does not guarantee these hours. They have seen their work disappear overnight, not been furloughed or been taken off furlough without the prospect of work and even made redundant without redundancy pay.
Indeed, according to the latest employment figures from the Office for National Statistics, a third of all zero hours workers are actually working full-time and the 62% who are working part-time end up working an average of almost 25 hours a week.
"Levelling up" should not just about spending more on infrastructure outside of London and the South-East. It should be about making sure that all workers have the security of work and income that will allow them to spend. If zero hours workers are working predictable hours and have come to expect that, they really should be on a permanent contract and have the rights that come with it.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
At least 20% of the zero hour workers in the United Kingdom work for the Welsh public sector, according to research carried out by Zero Hours Justice.
The research reveals that Wales makes up 8.4% of zero hours workers in UK universities, 7.1% in local authorities and 4.1% in NHS Trusts.
Yet, according to research carried out by the trade union Unison, 70% of people in Wales do not think that firms receiving public money should be allowed to use staff on zero hours contracts.
Furthermore, according the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of people on zero hours contracts in Wales is just 2.7%. The UK average is just 3%.
We agree that one should question the morality of using taxpayers' money to pay for cheap, insecure labour. But it would surely be hypocritical of public sector employers to only sign contracts with firms that do not use zero hours contracts, without looking at their own recruitment practices.
Earlier this month, Scottish Labour pledged to stop private sector employers who use zero hour workers from benefitting from contracts with the public sector, without asking whether the public sector is just as much a part of the problem.
The study from Zero Hours Justice is based on the Freedom of Information requests made to 799 universities, local authorities and NHS Trusts during the last 12 months. It did not look at other types of public sector organisations, such as schools or police forces.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, 22% of those working in the accommodation and food industry and 10% of those in the wholesale and retail sectors are on zero hour contracts.
Nowhere was this felt more acutely than in the food sector itself. A survey of the food sector by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union, in which 227 people responses, found that:
By Pravin Jeyaraj
The death rate from Covid is particular stark amongst male insecure workers, at 51 per 100,000 people aged 20-64, compared to 24 per 100,000 people in less insecure occupations. However, even for female insecure workers, the mortality rate was 25 per 100,000 people, compared to 13 per 100,000 in less insecure occupations.
In addition to a greater likelihood of being on the frontline against Covid, the higher mortality rate amongst precarious workers has been driven by the reality that they are only paid if they work. No work, even if they are sick, means not being able to pay bills. Statutory sick pay is too low to to make up for the income lost from not working and many insecure workers may not even be eligible for it.
According to a poll conducted by BritainThinks for the TUC, 67% of insecure workers said they receive no sick pay at all, compared to 7% of those in secure work.
We agree with the TUC's assessment that many employers are encouraged treat insecure workers as "disposable labour" due to the lack of employment rights. Of the zero hours workers who have contacted us in the past 12 months or so, the vast majority have complained about simply seeing their work disappear without being furloughed. We have seen examples of good employers who have furloughed zero hours and casual workers. Yet, other employers have simply pointed to the lack of any contractual obligation to pay zero hours workers for not working. After all, if an employer doesn't have to pay staff, why would they, especially when they are unable to open as usual.
By Pravin Jeyaraj
Of this group, 62% said that they were offered work with less than a week's notice their work schedules. 12% of this group, amounting to 7% of all working adults, were given less than 24 hours notice.
The situation is even worse in London, where almost half (48%) of all workers received less than a week's notice of work schedules.
Whilst some will value the flexibility offered by zero hours contracts, for many, not knowing whether there will be work from week to week - or even, from day to day - would create an inordinate amount of insecurity and stress. If you do not know whether you will have paid work each week, it is difficult to know whether you will be able to pay your bills or even plan your life with a degree of certainty.
At the same time, if you are earning below the Living Wage, the choice can often be between accepting the offers of work, rescheduling other appointments or rearranging childcare.
Zero Hours Justice's minimum criteria is that employers who use zero hour contracts should offer work with at least two weeks' notice and to pay some for compensation for agreed shifts cancelled at short notice. In addition, we urge them to review the actual hours worked of each zero hour worker and start a conversation with the worker about moving over to a fixed hours or minimum hours contract that accurately reflects hours worked.
Under its Living Hours programme, the Living Wage Foundation requires employers to both pay a real Living Wage and commit to providing at least four weeks’ notice for every shift, with guaranteed payment if shifts are cancelled within this notice period. Living Hours employers also provide a guaranteed minimum of 16 working hours every week (unless the worker requests otherwise), and a contract that accurately reflects hours worked.
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