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2014 National Delegate Conference
1 January 2014

Conference notes that employers have increasingly been turning to zero hour contracts, as part of the general attack on staff terms and conditions that has accompanied the intensification of privatisation and cuts to funding across the public services.

Zero hour contracts are where an individual is not guaranteed work and is paid only for the actual hours of work offered by the employer and carried out. There are three primary reasons why zero hour contracts may be used: demands of the job – where work is erratic and highly unpredictable, varying from day to day and week to week; evading employment rights – employers may designate individuals as workers rather than employees. Workers are not entitled to protection against unfair dismissal, maternity rights, redundancy rights and rights under TUPE; meeting individual flexibility – for some employees zero hour contracts may be attractive in that they choose when and where they work, or it is a supplement to a main job, or potential insecurity of income if not of major concern – e.g. a retired person who wants to do some occasional work.

Conference acknowledges that a minority of staff find some advantages in these working arrangements, particularly if they can find a way of balancing a zero hours contract with a second job, so that the income represents a supplement to a more permanent source of earnings. However, Conference rejects the conclusion of the 2013 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) report which stated, on the basis of surveying the contentment with working hours of zero hours contract workers, that the contracts were ‘unfairly demonised’. Zero hours contracts are objectively and demonstrably worse for staff than guaranteed hours contracts as they always involve the shifting of risk from the employer to the employee. It is wholly fair and appropriate to demonise zero hours contracts.

Zero hour contracts may be good for the employer because they provide ultimate flexibility, allowing them to hire and let go of staff at will, but for workers they provide zero security – no guaranteed hours, no benefits and jobs which can be cancelled at the drop of a hat. Yes, for many zero hour contracts are a good means to employment that offer flexibility to the employee which can be particularly helpful to students, parents and even older people topping up their pension, but for many they provide no security at all. These people find it difficult to get mortgages, and or apply for credit as well as trying to make ends meet.

Conference believes that ‘zero hours contracts’ are a contradiction in terms. A contract between an employer and employee implies that both have rights and obligations, but zero hours contracts put all the obligations on the employee. Zero hours contracts are not what we have come to understand as ‘jobs’ – they provide no security of income and no opportunity for workers to plan their lives away from work. Not knowing from one week to the next what money is coming in to buy food and pay the bills is extremely nerve-wracking. Having your hours varied at short notice is also stressful and makes planning childcare arrangements and budgeting hard.

Conference agrees that for staff, zero hour contracts present huge drawbacks in comparison to permanent employment rights that are otherwise usually clearly defined, for permanent staff. These drawbacks include:

1) Hours of work become variable and irregular hours;

2) There is no guaranteed level of regular earnings that provides any certainty over meeting bills or planning for the future;

3) Zero hours contracts in comparison to fixed contract employees receive lower gross weekly pay;

4) The need to respond to calls to attend work, frequently at short notice, disrupts life outside of work and places a particular strain on families and arranging care for dependants;

5) While weekly income can frequently be inadequate, the need to be available for work when required by the employer hinders the ability of staff to take up other employment;

6) The variability of earnings throws into doubt an individual’s eligibility to claim various forms of benefit. For example, the working tax credit for a single person can only be claimed if an individual works 16 hours a week, but whether an individual exceeds these hours can vary from week to week under zero hours, creating even greater uncertainty over income;

7) Zero hour contracts have also shown themselves to be more open to abuse than regular permanent contracts. For example, scheduling of working hours in the homecare sector that allowed no time for travel time between home visits has led to staff working considerably beyond their paid hours in some cases;

8) are more susceptible to unfair treatment through weaker employment rights and are made to work in unsafe conditions with constant fear of been sacked.

Conference also notes that the use of zero hour contracts have spread so rapidly official statistics have failed to keep track. Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest there are approximately 250,000 people on zero hours contracts. However the realistic figure suggested by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development research shows approximately a million people working on zero hours contracts.

Whatever the hard numbers tell us, zero hour contracts have come to symbolise a wider concern that the labour market is moving towards less secure and more exploitative forms of employment at a time when in many areas jobs are scarce and people have little choice taking whatever work is available. Since the coalition have taken power there has been mass redundancies, with many jobs being frozen and those who have survived are facing massive attacks on pay and conditions and threats of zero hours contracts. Black workers appear to be disproportionately affected by this.

The prevalence of zero hours contracts is higher amongst young Black people than any other group and 37% of those employed on such contracts are aged between 16 and 24. People are being forced to work on zero hours contracts because they have no choice due to the present economic climate. What is clear is that a growing number of workers now have no regular hours and face uncertainty every week on paying bills and rent.

Conference notes the insidious spread of zero-hour contracts and the impact this is having of the employment, terms and conditions of UNISON members employed in the public sector. Recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research suggests that zero hour contracts are more commonly used in the public rather than in the private sector. The areas that have seen the most widespread use of zero hour contracts highlight a marked tendency for women to be disproportionately affected and one in every three zero hours employees are under the age of 25. Zero hours contracts also disproportionately impact Black women workers, who are more likely to work in homecare and other vulnerable employment. They can also have caring responsibilities that restrict their ability to be flexible which can jeopardise the already unequal relationship with the employer. 41% of Black people who are employed in the Homecare Sector are believed to be affected by Zero hours contracts. In the transport sector we have seen a rise in the use of zero hour contacts, mainly with data collectors, but more recently with office staff based within the smart ticketing team, as employers are trying to find cost effective ways of meeting short term staffing needs.

Conference believes that zero hours contracts have no place in the provision of health and social care services. A Resolution Foundation report “A Matter of Time: The rise of zero-hours contracts” uses data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) to estimate that 20% of zero hours contract workers work in health and social work. This is a disproportionately high share and more than in any other sector. LFS data also indicates an association between zero hours contracts and the private sector – where 85% of those employed on such a basis are to be found, and smaller workplaces. Conference notes with concern that a consequence of the privatisation and fragmentation of health services could be the increased use of zero hours contracts.

Conference welcomes the announcement from Vince Cable that companies could face a code of conduct to prevent them from exploiting workers through zero hour contracts. Conference further welcomes Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s three point plan to tackle zero hour contracts announced at the TUC Congress in September 2013, that a Labour government would take on zero-hours contracts and commit to the following steps:

a) Ban contracts which require workers to work exclusively for one business;

b) Stop contracts which require workers to be on call all day without a guarantee of work;

c) Stop contracts where workers are working regular hours but are denied a regular contract.

We welcome these initial steps but Conference agrees we need to ensure all public sector workers employed on zero hours contracts are members of a Union and that steps will need to be taken ensure that if necessary extra measures are taken to stop abuses.

Conference calls on the National Executive Council to monitor the impact of zero hours contracts in the public sector and service groups with a view to stopping the exploitation of zero hour contracts.

Conference therefore calls on the National Executive Council to

i) Ensure that UNISON monitor the impact of zero hours contracts in the public sector and on the services provided and assess the effect on the employees subject to these contracts;

ii) Consider what changes need to be made to improve such contracts both for the benefit of the employees and the services they deliver and take steps to campaign for any necessary changes that are identified through the above;

iii) Work with Labour link and the General Political Fund to lobby MPs for safeguards to be introduced to improve the rights of workers on zero hours contracts

iv) Monitor and campaign against the use of zero hours contracts in the provision of health services and promote the UNISON Ethical Care Charter, which includes a requirement that signatory employers ensure that “zero hour contracts will not be used in place of permanent contracts”;

v) Campaign to highlight the importance of social care employment standards in determining the quality of care services;

vi) Campaign to ensure that the social care sector provides viable jobs such that the risks of variable demand for services and the cost pressures on commissioning organisations are not passed down on to the shoulders of care workers;

vii) work with the National Black members committee and other self-organised groups, service groups and other trade unions to raise awareness of the disproportionate impact on Black women workers in particular of the increased use of zero hour contracts.