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2012 National Women's Conference
20 October 2011

Conference will be aware that for some time we have been seeing in the public sector the increase in zero hours or permanent variable hours contracts, the majority of those being placed on such contracts are women. Sunderland Local Authority, in the Northern Region has been using variable contracts as a means of avoiding compulsory redundancies. There has been a recent Employment Tribunal decision in the Newcastle Employment Tribunal which has serious implications for women members. The case involved Ms Pareen Hasib, a teaching assistant, who had been working on average 27.5 hours per week for the council during term time since October 2006, when on seeking to return to work from maternity leave, she was told that there was no work for her to return to. Ms Hasib took her case to Employment Tribunal after she had been given no work for six months, claiming unfair dismissal. The case was heard in August where the Employment Tribunal accepted the employer’s argument that there was no work available and not that there was no job, and therefore the Tribunal decided it had no jurisdiction to hear the case as there was no dismissal. Sunderland Council has almost one thousand staff on variable contracts, the majority of whom are part time low paid women.

Local Authorities are not the only ones using zero hours or variable hours contracts. These contracts are increasingly being introduced in other services for example Police and Universities. At Newcastle University, ‘Casual’ worker contracts are now being brought in to replace any full time ancillary staff positions that are vacated; effectively undermining the terms and conditions of employment of this already much maligned group of workers, predominantly female cleaning staff. But it’s not just lower grades that are suffering recently a woman who is employed as a Grade D Research interviewer has been told that she and nineteen other Research Interviewers are to have their contracts changed to ‘variable hours’, effectively making these women ‘redundant by stealth’.

Women members who are reliant on paid employment are being faced with difficult decisions. Do they continue with no guarantee of paid employment but not being made redundant or being eligible to claim unemployment benefits, or voluntarily leaving their employment and have to wait to be eligible to claim state benefits and possibly claim constructive dismissal.

Public sector employers are arguing that in the current climate of cuts, employees are opting for these contracts in preference to being made redundancies.

The reality of these contracts are that women members:

1)Have no guarantee of earned income

2)Increase the difficulties of arranging dependant care due to uncertainty

3)The impact on families is not only financial

4)Increase the pressure on women including mental stress

5)Increase in travel costs if they have no designated work location

6)Impacts on training opportunities for women staff

7)Linked to the erosion of terms and conditions of employment for women members

8)Impacts on equality at work

9)Impact on social care both for service providers and service users

10)Detrimental impact to work life balance

11)Potential to increase bullying and victimisation at work by withholding hours

This National Women’s Conference calls on the National Women’s Committee to:

a)Raise awareness of the implication for our women members of zero hour or variable hour contracts

b)Work with the appropriate structures of UNISON to highlight and negotiate where appropriate retainer pay and/or access to state benefits

c)To work with the UNISON delegates to the TUC for protection for women workers placed in this position

d)Raise through Labour Link to campaign on this issue