The dread and pain of zero-hours contracts

Conference hears government claims of record employment disguise continuing attacks on secure, properly paid jobs in the name of private profit

“Lies, damned lies and statistics.” That was the damning comment on the government claim that the UK has record employment.

Shirley Scott for the service group executive opened today’s debates at UNISON’s local government conference in Liverpool with a motion on zero-hours contracts.

She pointed out that zero-hours contracts – now seen in local government, “particularly in social care”– are linked to “privatisation” and are simply a “cost-cutting measure”.

Moves to “casualise” the workforce also have a negative impact on sick pay and pensions.

Zero-hours contracts have seen workers punished for ‘late notification’ of not being able to do a shift – even when circumstances meant that they could not have given earlier warning.

“Our members deserve better,” asserted Ms Scott. “Fair pay, security and decent conditions.”

A social care worker for a private employer in north London spoke of how they, with colleagues, were all underpaid and scared to take sick leave: “We need to bring all social care back in-house. We are suffering from zero-hours contracts.”

From Camden, Liz Wheatley described zero-hours contracts as “an attack on all of us,” noting that a Camden councillor had defended  such contracts on the grounds of ‘flexibility’.

For the union’s LGBT group, Anu Prashar asked whether, since “workers are often at the mercy of managers, do you think, if you told your manager you were LGBT, you’d get more hours?”

The vulnerability of being worried about your manager giving you enough hours work to pay the rent leads LGBT workers to stop being out at work. Coupled with that often comes an assumption that LGBT people can work at short notice, since they ‘don’t have family’.

Bev Miller described zero-hours contracts as “inherently discriminatory”, noting the particular problems that disabled workers face as a result of such labour practices.

Manjula Kamari for the national Black members’ committee noted: “We know that employers are increasingly using zero-hours contracts in the public sector and particularly for women and Black workers.

“The inequality is clear.”

And “with no regular income, but a job on paper, claiming benefits is difficult at best” even if you don’t get any work in a given week.

Susan Hamilton from Belfast education branch described such contracts as ‘as and when’ contracts. Exploitative – entirely for the benefit of employers. “There should be no place for them in the public sector,” she said.

Conference voted unanimously to instruct the executive to:

  • work with the national executive council to campaign for a change in the law to make such contracts illegal in local government;
  • campaign to ensure that where such contracts are used, there are no punishment clauses for non-attendance;
  • review the guidance for local government branches on zero-hours contracts.