19 January 2018
The Workers’ Definition and Rights Bill, brought by SNP MP Chris Stephens, is set to have its second reading in Parliament today.
Drafted with support from the Institute of Employment Rights, the Bill proposes the effective abolition of zero-hour contracts, except where there is an agreement with a trade union regarding flexible working terms.
It legislates for the establishment of a right to fixed and regular weekly hours for every worker; a requirement on managers to provide decent notice of shifts, as well as full payment when shifts are cancelled at short notice; and a duty on the principal employer for the protection of workers’ rights when operations are outsourced to third parties. This means that if a company contracted to complete outsourced work fails or absconds, wages must be recoverable from the principal employer.
President of the Institute of Employment Rights Professor Keith Ewing explained to the Morning Star: “Companies should take more responsibility for whom they contract with (by more effective due diligence) and workers should never be left without a remedy when wages and other financial benefits are unpaid.”
Speaking to the newspaper, Stephens explained that “precarious work is on the rise”, recounting the story of an organist at a crematorium who was on a zero-hours contract. “If there’s one person you’d expect to have regular hours, it’s surely that organist,” he said.
Indeed, the use of zero-hours contracts jumped by 20% in 2016, and even after large firms have been shamed into dropping the practice, many have simply replaced them with “short-hours contracts” that guarantee as little as one hour of work; while others have said they will provide guaranteed hours but have not acted on their promise.
Unite Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner was quoted by the Morning Star explaining that some employers “return to the bad old days once the spotlight has gone away”, despite the success of trade union campaigns in slowing down the rise of zero-hours contracts in 2017.
“The purpose of this Bill is to effectively abolish zero-hours contracts – so they can only be in place where there is an agreement to that effect with a recognised trade union,” Stephens, MP for Glasgow West, told the newspaper.
Describing the Bill as “very important”, Professor Ewing said: “Labour is not a commodity, in the famous words of the International Labour Organisation, and it is time that principle is recognised in this country again. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Bill in this respect.
“Every worker will be entitled to fixed and regular hours of work, with swingeing penalties for employers who fail to honour this principle.
“Any flexibility needed by the employer with the agreement of workers will be available only with the consent of a recognised trade union through collective bargaining – to provide maximum protection for workers and an incentive to employers to recognise.”
The Bill chimes well with the IER’s Manifesto for Labour Law – 25 proposals for reform published in 2016, which were a major influence on the employment rights section of the Labour Party Manifesto For the Many; Not the Few.
Professor Ewing said: “Chris Stephens follows the IER position that all rights should be universal in their application: if you provide labour for another, you should be protected by the country’s labour law, unless of course you are genuinely running your own business.”
The Bill has received support from the Labour Party and from the General Council of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, and Stephens believes the time could be right to bring these issues to Westminster.
“I think if we can get it debated there’s a chance we can get it passed. There is a real opportunity given the weakness of the government, and MPs should be putting forward their ideas,” he explained.
While congratulating Stephens on his “excellent initiative”, IER Director Carolyn Jones warned that there are limits to what can be achieved under a Conservative government.
She explained: “We believe only the full implementation of our Manifesto for Labour Law will address the many problems facing workers and young people.”