THE BLOG

We Need Action to Tackle Exploitative Zero-Hours Contracts, But Ministers' Plans Are Falling Badly Short

06/11/2014 09:11 GMT | Updated 05/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Too many people across UK face the fear of insecurity in their employment, and zero-hours contracts have come to define that fear in recent years. Under the Tory-led government we have seen a rising tide of insecurity - the number of people feeling insecure at work has almost doubled in the past three years, from 6.5 million to 12 million. On top of that, people are already earning £1,600 less a year on average than they were in 2010: working just as hard, but for less, hit by the cost-of-living crisis. So whilst a few at the top are doing well, everyone else is getting left further and further behind. There are 1.3 million people working part time because they are unable to find full-time work.

Labour is clear that we will outlaw zero-hours contracts where they exploit people, making sure they work for employees and employers. While there are some employees - students, for example - who welcome the flexibility which they offer, zero-hours contracts have gone from being a marginal, niche concept to becoming the norm for too many people across Britain - ONS estimated earlier this year that there are 1.4 million zero-hours contracts in Britain, while as recently as last year the government was still claiming that there were just 200,000.

The Tory-led government has been dragged kicking and screaming to acknowledge that zero-hours contracts are an issue which needs to be looked at. First, Ministers denied that they were a problem at all and then due to further pressure from Labour, trade unions and charities, they instigated a half-hearted review. We've had to persistently push them to recognise the impact these contracts were having on peoples' lives. They've now brought forward changes which will stop employers from insisting that those on zero-hours contracts are available for work even when there is no guarantee of any work. We welcome that change but it just doesn't go far enough.

Yet this does nothing to prevent most of the problems experienced by those on zero-hours contracts. What about people expected to be available for hours on end with no guarantee of work? What about the insecurity of having your shift cancelled without notice? And what about those working regular hours in practice but kept on zero-hours contracts under the threat of being 'zeroed out'?

The government's Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill - being scrutinised in committee in the House of Commons this week - falls far short of Labour's plans.

We have pushed for action that would make a real difference. Our proposals would give workers the right to a regular contract if they are, in practice, working regular hours for a certain period. The onus should be on businesses to show their business needs cannot be met by any other form of flexible contract.

And those on zero-hour contracts should be able to seek compensation if their shift is cancelled at short notice. People sometimes go to great expense to turn up at work. They arrange child care, pay train or bus fares. These things take time to organise and cost money.

So when, having previously been told they are needed for work, a worker gets a text a couple of hours before there shift starts saying "You're not needed today", that's unacceptable. By ensuring that workers can seek redress, unscrupulous employers would be dissuaded for cancelling work at short notice.

Prior to becoming an MP, I ran a number of small businesses, and through that experience I know that staff perform best when you respect them and give them confidence and stability through clear working hours and responsibilities. We need to see a recovery built on creating more better-paid, high skilled jobs across Britain, not insecure employment - competing in a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. Giving evidence to the Small Business Bill committee even Treasury Minister Andrea Leadsom was forced to admit what is obvious to everyone else, conceding that it would be preferable for more people to be on "better contracts" and admitting that the explosion of insecure employment is making it harder to get the deficit down.

Today, ministers have the opportunity to match Labour's plans to end exploitation of zero-hours contracts. But they have so far failed to come close to our commitments. If they won't support our plans, it will fall to the next Labour government to take action to tackle the exploitative use of zero hour contracts.