Proposed Employment Bill needs to tackle zero-hours contracts.

I spoke in the Assembly this week on the second stage of the Employment Bill, which aims to strike the right balance between flexibility for employers and the protection of workers’ rights. While the SDLP broadly welcome the Bill, and want it to pass after a very lengthy consultation phase, there are major omissions, primarily around zero-hour contracts.

Three years ago, I brought a motion to Belfast City Council asking that the organisation, as one of the major employers in the city, do not impose them on staff, and I am glad that that was successful. However, in that time we have not made any progress in the wider legislative framework.

Effectively, a zero-hours contract creates an on-call arrangement between the employer and the employee but does not necessarily provide work and, in some cases, locks the employee into work for just that company. Of course, the arrangement suits some people, such as students or retirees who do not have fixed outgoings and maybe can be a bit more flexible with their time.

I also appreciate the appeal for employers: it allows maximum flexibility to respond to demand and minimise risk, and to exploit what resources are available to them. However, we see the price of that being paid by an increasingly precarious layer of workers who in very many cases are getting a raw deal – a need for flexibility is not an excuse for exploitation. Many people on a ZHC live in fear of showing any sign of inflexibility in case hours are reduced as a punishment for this, for any reason, or for no reason at all.

Zero Hour Contracts are a way for unscrupulous employers to, in some cases, avoid paying employees properly and avoid giving them other reasonable employment rights. It may also be a way that unscrupulous Governments, if they so choose, could mask underemployment rates and unemployment rates – an authortative study by the Chartered Institute of Personel found that over 60% of those on a ZHC wanted more hours and couldn’t get them.

Zero-hours contracts are fundamentally anti-family: you cannot access formal childcare; you cannot plan for childcare or looking after an elderly parent; and you cannot really train for a better job when you do not know whether you are in or out one day or the other. You can’t plan financially, and indeed may be rendered unable to access tax credits due to fluctuating income.

I proposed, very briefly, some ways that we might take the sting out of ZHCs without an outright ban — and the sting has to be taken out: legislation could give anybody who has done 12 weeks’ work on a zero-hours contract the right to a contract based on that average time; crucuially we could end the provision can require an employee to work with just one employer even with no guarantee of work; and end the misuse, where people are working basically regular hours on a regular contract for a long time but are being denied that contract.

As is our usual approach, the SDLP will engage with this bill as it works through the system, improving where we can.

For a full transcript of my contribution to the debate see Hansard at: