Zeroing in on zero-hours contracts

With 1.4 million people on zero-hours contracts, according to the Office for National Statistics, the issue will be a major debate at NDC with four motions (69-72) on the agenda.

Zero-hours contracts are increasingly used by major employers, but they mean staff work – and get paid – only when employers need them, often at short notice.

Some zero-hours contracts oblige workers to take all shifts they are offered, while there is often no holiday or sick pay.

A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey found that a third of voluntary sector organisations, a quarter of public sector employers and 17% of private sector firms use zero-hours contracts.

The conciliation service Acas says that a lot of workers on zero-hours contracts are afraid of looking for work elsewhere, turning down hours, or questioning their employment rights in case their work is withdrawn or reduced.

UNISON has warned that his type of employment is insecure, stressful and makes budgeting impossible.

As general secretary Dave Prentis has pointed out: “Not knowing from week to week what money you have coming in to buy food and pay your bills can be distressing.

“Having your working hours varied at short notice is also stressful and it makes planning, childcare arrangements and budgeting hard.”

These and other issues are addressed in motion 69 from Yorkshire and Humberside, which points out that, “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”.

It welcomes Labour leader Ed Miliband’s plan to ban contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business, where workers have to be on call all day, without a guarantee of work and where workers are working regular hours but are denied a regular contract.

While welcoming “these initial steps”, the motion calls on the national executive council to monitor the impact of zero-hours contracts in the public sector, assess their effect on employees, and to consider what changes need to be made to improve such contracts.

Motion 70 from Stockport opposes the wide use of zero-hours contracts in health and social care and quotes research that estimates that 20% of zero-hours contract workers work in health and social work.

It also quotes research that showed that 70% of private home care providers offered only zero-hours contracts to staff, while 90% of local authority providers did not use zero-hours contracts at all.

Stating that zero-hours contracts have no place in health and social care, the motion calls on the NEC to promote the UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, which includes a requirement that signatory employers ensure that “zero-hour contracts will not be used in place of permanent contracts”.

It also calls for a campaign to highlight the importance of social care employment standards in determining the quality of care services.

“Zero-hours contracts may be good for the employer because they provide ultimate flexibility … but for workers they provide zero security – no guaranteed hours, no benefits, and jobs which can be cancelled at the drop of a hat,” says West Yorkshire Transport’s motion 71.

As well as welcoming Mr Miliband’s call for the exploitation of zero-hours contracts to be stopped, the motion welcomes business secretary Vince Cable’s announcement that companies could face a code of conduct to prevent them from exploiting workers through zero-hour contracts.

South Lanarkshire’s motion 72 notes the campaign of UNISON Scotland to persuade the Scottish government to amend proposed legislation and allow councils to make sure that companies bidding for services can be forced to pay the living wage and not to use zero-hours contracts.

It calls on governments and councils to adopt such procurement policies and, specifically, UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, and calls for a recruitment campaign to double the union’s membership in the private home care sector by conference 2015.