Ben Moxham: Time to clock off from zero hours contracts

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From Sports Direct to Buckingham Palace, jobs that can only guarantee “zero hours” of work have worryingly spread to all corners of the economy.

For workers on such contracts, life can be painfully uncertain. If you get no work for a week or two, getting a mortgage, or arranging childcare can be a nightmare. Planning ahead becomes something only your boss can do.

Zero hours work is nearly always low paid, with many workers denied holiday and sick pay because their “contract of employment” only lasts a few hours at a time.

They are also taking their toll on services, as zero hours contracts are used to cut costs. The TUC has already heard stories of home care workers on zero hours contracts being moved all over the place, which means they never get to know the people they’re looking after properly. Insecure work can mean insecure care.

We’ve also heard from staff on zero hours contracts, forced to work several jobs to avoid weeks of no pay. This can leave them exhausted and the services they provide potentially unsafe.

How many workers are on zero hours contracts? Recent government data shows that the numbers have surged to 200,000. However, these figures don’t show the full picture. Many employees don’t know about the “zero hours” fine print in their employment contract until their boss gives them “zero hours”.

For instance, we know that 300,000 workers are on the contracts in the care sector alone. Talking to our affiliates, we know that zero hours working is cropping up in all sectors of the economy.

In a few cases the flexibility of these contracts can benefit workers. But we’ve heard story after story of people being short-changed on other entitlements, or dumped when business turns quiet. In short, zero hours contracts seem more about cost-cutting than genuine flexibility.

The spread of zero hours working is yet more evidence of the low-wage Britain we are becoming. Since 2008, most new jobs are not permanent or well-paid. That’s a key reason why workers have effectively taken a 7 per cent cut in wages since then. That’s a £52 billion squeeze on living standards and a chronic drag on the economy. Scotland and Britain urgently need a pay rise.

In response to the public outcry on zero hours, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced a review of the contracts. This is a start, but it has to result in strong regulation to stamp out this abuse. But as the introduction of hefty employment tribunal fees on Monday shows, this may be a big ask for a government busy taking several axes to our employment rights.

Ben Moxham is a senior employment rights officer at the TUC