Zero-hours scandal: Unite faces up to Sports Direct and palace revealed to be using zero-hours workers

31 July 2013 The scandal of zero-hours contracts is gaining traction in the press, as well as in parliament, as the scale of the problem is beginning to be uncovered.

31 Jul 2013| News

31 July 2013

The scandal of zero-hours contracts is gaining traction in the press, as well as in parliament, as the scale of the problem is beginning to be uncovered.

Obtaining reliable statistics on how many people are employed on zero-hours contracts is an impossibility at the moment, as the government does not collect sufficiently accurate data on this type of employment, but the widespread use of the exploitative agreements is coming to the fore.

The contracts, which do not promise employees work but leave them essentially ‘on call’ at all times to be summoned to the workplace, are used widely in the retail sector, and even in some of the UK’s most famous establishments: The Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace.

It was reported earlier this week that a massive 90% of Sports Direct staff are on zero-hours contracts – around 20,000 workers. And this comes from a firm that boasted about its generous bonus scheme just earlier this month, granting £100,000 to employees earning at least £20,000 after reporting record profits. But it seems this attempt to ‘share the wealth’ was nothing more than a media stunt, as although the company stated it was shop floor staff who would be granted the payments, a very small percentage of the firm’s workers are actually eligible for the bonus scheme. It was reported that around 2,000 people would be paid out from the bonus pool, but this represents some of the only full-time staff employed by the chain – and even they can be excluded from receiving the payments if their performance is deemed to be “unsatisfactory”. Unite told the Guardian that around 20 people are known to have been made exempt from the bonus payout already. However generous the company’s bonus scheme sounds, it pales into insignificance in the light of the fact that an overwhelming majority of the firm’s workers scrape by on low wages, unable to predict how much money they will make a week – if any – and excluded from basic rights like sick pay and annual leave.

The news has caused outrage in the trade union movement and Unite has written to Sports Direct boss – and owner of football team Newcastle United – Mike Ashley to meet with the union urgently to discuss the treatment of his staff.

Regional secretary Annmarie Kilcline told the Morning Star: “Unite is seriously concerned that a culture of law pay and poor treatment has embedded itself in at Sports Direct. We have begun to compile a dossier to present to senior management cataloguing these concerns.”

The union also revealed that warehouse workers face waits of up to 45 minutes after their shifts to undergo a mandatory search.

General Secretary of Usdaw John Hannett has also spoken out against the chain’s exploitative behaviour, telling the Telegraph: “Zero-hours contracts leave employees vulnerable, insecure and at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. All contracts should guarantee a minimum number of hours.”

“The UK labour market is one of the most deregulated in the industrial world and the re-emergence of zero-hours contracts, many years after reputable employers had done away with them, is a depressing sign of the extent of exploitation faced by many employees,” he added.

Sports Direct has so far refused to comment on the revelations, which have hit a wide range of media sources this week.

Elsewhere, the Guardian has revealed that Buckingham Palace uses 350 summer staff on zero-hours contracts, although a spokeswoman for the palace refused to define them as such.

The contracts, an example of which has been seen by the newspaper, say: “Your hours of work will be advised by the visitor manager and will be dependent upon the requirements for retail assistants at Buckingham Palace as and when required.

“You are employed to work exclusively for Royal Collection Enterprises Limited [a Palace subsidiary] and if you wish to seek secondary employment you must first obtain the written consent of your Head of Department.”

The spokeswoman tried to defend the palace, telling the Guardian that rotas are drawn up a month in advance so that workers can plan their hours, and they are entitled to meals and many of the rights afforded to full-time employees, including holiday pay. But this can be but little compensation to those workers who may be forced to try and survive on this precarious contract without the choice of seeking secondary employment.

It has previously been revealed in a House of Commons debate that Westminster uses zero-hours contracts for some of its staff, unveiling how widespread the agreements are becoming.

Other companies highlighted as zero-hours contract users have included Tate art galleries and Cineworld – the second largest cinema chain in the UK.

The Institute of Employment Rights will be reporting on zero-hours contracts over the coming months as well as producing briefings and other publications providing recommendations for changes in the law and analysis of the use and implications of zero-hours contracts. Click here to sign up to our weekly news brief