A view on how the govt could stop employers abusing zero-hours contracts

So Dr Cable wants to stop employers abusing workers through zero-hours contracts and he is consulting the public about how best to do this

Commentary icon20 Dec 2013|Comment

20 December 2013

By Roger Jeary

So Dr Cable wants to stop employers abusing workers through zero-hours contracts and he is consulting the public about how best to do this. Let me offer some suggestions.

Firstly he can restore fair access to justice for workers by scrapping the tribunal fee system. Then perhaps he could reduce the qualification period for unfair dismissal claims back to 12 months or better still to 6 months as they once were. Next he could restore funding to the inspectorates who are meant to investigate rogue employers so that they actually have the necessary number of staff to weed out those employers who seek to exploit workers. I could go on but the truth is nothing short of banning such contracts will offer the protection that workers deserve from exploitation. Zero-hours contracts are by definition designed to provide employers with “flexibility”: code for exploitation and the freedom to hire and fire at will.

Dr Cable is keen to emphasise that zero-hours contracts, as well as providing employers with “flexibility”, also give working people options. Whilst that may be true for a few, the vast majority of workers want to have security of employment and security of income. The fact that we have over 1.5 million workers working fewer hours than they would wish is, in part, testament to the growth of zero-hours contracts. And anyway, since when has it been good policy to legitimise something just because a minority find it convenient or desirable. On that basis, we could look forward to the legalisation of cannabis.

Workers deserve to have a degree of certainty in their lives. Regular hours, fair pay and basic rights underpinning their working conditions. Zero-hours contracts are a Victorian throwback to when men queued for work each morning in the hope of having money for food for that day. They have no place in a modern civilised society. The consultation document addresses only two real issues: exclusivity (not allowing workers to work elsewhere even when the employer has no hours for them) and transparency (making clearer the terms and conditions of zero-hours contracts). Dr Cable has already made his views known that he would want to see exclusivity clauses banned, although the consultation does ask if anyone has ideas on how such clauses could be made more acceptable!

The consultation, as with many consultations from this government, starts by stating that the government is not going to scrap zero-hours contracts and limits responses to tinkering with the concept. As such it is unlikely to address the real dilemma facing workers offered such contracts: commit to uncertainty and insecurity or continue to remain unemployed. It seems to me that employers have as much flexibility as they need without maintaining this exploitative tool.

Click here to see President of the IER Professor Keith Ewing’s alternative proposals on how the law around zero-hours contracts could be changed

Roger Jeary

Roger Jeary Roger Jeary retired from Unite in January 2012 after 33 year’s service as a negotiating officer and Director of Research. Roger worked in Northern Ireland, Manchester and London as an official of the union starting with ASTMS and then MSF and AMICUS before the final merger to Unite. In 2004 he was appointed Director of Research of Amicus and subsequently took on that role for Unite in 2007. Roger is a member of the Institute’s Publications Sub Committee. Currently Roger is a Trustee Director of FairPensions, an independent member of the ACAS Panel of Arbitrators, sits on the Advisory Panel of the IPA and is a member of the Manufacturing Policy Panel of the Institute of Engineering & Technology (IET).