Monday, 16 September 2013

Muddying the water

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of people who are employed on zero-hours’ contracts. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some employers are seeking to exploit the current economic uncertainty.

Recently, I’ve met constituents who, following a period of unemployment, have found jobs working regular hours but are employed on zero-hours contracts. Some have been told they have to work exclusively for one employer, but with no guarantee that they will get enough work to pay the bills.  Others have had to commit to making themselves available for work at times when they are uncertain that they can make appropriate child-care arrangements at such short-notice. For them, zero-hours contracts mean daily stress and insecurity.

After a decade when we implemented legislation on the minimum wage, agency workers, holiday and parental leave entitlements to protect employees and fair competition, it now appears that we are in a period where some employers are pursuing a race to see who can exploit workers the most. This can’t continue.

Understanding and tackling the issue hasn’t been helped by the determined attempts by some employers and parts of the media to muddy the water. We do need to distinguish between what and what is not acceptable. Of course, we need flexibility. But flexibility should never be used to try to justify exploitation.

There are some long-standing arrangements where zero-hours’ contracts are appropriate and acceptable – for example, supply arrangements for teachers and doctors or occasional stewarding at events.

But what should be banned is employers insisting that zero-hours workers must be available even when there is no guarantee of any work. We should stop zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business. And we should end the misuse of zero-hours contracts where employees are, in practice, working regular hours over a sustained period.

Such employment practices are bad for employees, bad for good employers and fair competition, and bad for the economy if increasing numbers of people are uncertain about their ability to invest for the future. It’s time to act now.