Scots committee claim zero hours contracts exploitative
Zero hours contracts should not be used by employers in most cases, according to a committee of MPs which voiced alarm at what it sees as the increasing use of casual labour across the UK.
A report by the Commons’ Scottish Affairs Committee concluded that the use of such contracts is out of all proportion to what is needed and is creating a two-tier workforce.
While zero hours contracts can benefit some workers and employers, the relationship is often unbalanced, leaving the employer with all of the flexibility and few costs and the worker in fear of dismissal, the committee found.
It urged the Government to use all the options at its disposal, including legislative change, to bring about a culture-shift.
Committee chair Ian Davidson MP said: “The overwhelming majority of zero hours contracts are abusive and exploitative and should be abolished.”
Zero hours contracts are not defined in law but have come to refer to employment contracts which do not guarantee the provision of work.
While they can give flexibility to both parties, they can result in workers lacking guaranteed income and having reduced access to entitlements such as maternity, holiday and sick pay and redundancy rights, the committee said.
The group has been carrying out an inquiry into the contracts in Scotland amid what it termed a perceived rise in the use and misuse of the contracts and other forms of insecure employment over the last 18 months.
Evidence to the Committee suggested that 20% of workers on zero hours contracts are paid less than their permanent equivalents doing the same job, 5% are paid less than the national minimum wage and 6% turn up for work to find none available.
An interim report compiled by the committee concluded: “It is clear that zero hours contracts and other forms of casual labour can benefit both employers and workers but our inquiry has shown that, too often, the relationship is unbalanced, leaving the employer with all of the flexibility and few costs and the worker in fear of dismissal and denied access to due rights of employment.
“During our inquiry into the use of zero hours contracts in Scotland, we heard how workers, without the security of a permanent job, were fearful of questioning the terms of the conditions of their employment even if they knew them to be unfair, were reluctant to challenge unsafe working conditions and felt that they could not turn down work no matter how short the notice or how inconvenient the shift offered, in case doing so jeopardised future offers of work.”
The MPs said Ministers recognise that poor practice exists and needs to be addressed but concluded that the UK Government’s consultation on such contracts was too narrow.
The committee has issued a detailed series of recommendations aimed at improving the operation of the contracts.
Among the proposals are suggestions that zero hours contracts should only be used where the employer can justify it objectively, that workers should be told from the outset what type of contract they are on, and that where workers arrive for work but find none available the employer should compensate them for the inconvenience.
In its lengthy report it also branded the exploitation of low-paid workers through non-payment of the minimum wage a “disgrace” and said it was “alarmed” by the extent to which zero hours contracts are used by Scotland’s higher education sector.
“The increase in the use of casual labour across the UK, and in Scotland in particular, is alarming,” the committee concluded.
“The Government should use all the levers at its disposal, including legislative change, to effect a shift in culture.”
Mr Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, said of the contracts: “In most cases their use is evidence of sloppy, lazy or incompetent management, who intimidate their workforce by keeping them insecure.
“Zero hours contracts put workers in such a vulnerable position that they are unable even to assert their lawful right to the meagre benefits these contracts offer.
“We heard how workers, without any kind of job security, were fearful of questioning the terms of their employment, even when they knew they were being treated unfairly, and that they were reluctant to challenge unsafe working conditions. Many felt that they could not turn down work, no matter how short the notice or however inconvenient the shift offered, in case doing so jeopardised future offers of work.”
He went on: “Our detailed recommendations would improve the operation of zero hours contracts but our overriding conclusion is that, in the majority of cases, zero hours contracts need not and should not be used at all.”
Martin Smith, of the GMB union, said: “The committee’s report is very welcome and Parliament will need to take action.
“There is a direct correlation between fat cats’ ever expanding pay and that many jobs in the care, retail, security and other sectors that were previously long standing full-time secure posts now being split into three or four zero hours jobs.”
Steve Turner, Unite’s assistant general secretary, said: “These appalling zero hours contracts are spreading like a virus, taking our workplaces back to the dark ages.
“For the vast majority, these contacts mean horrendous insecurity. People cannot raise a family or get on in life when they never know from one day to another if they will earn a wage.
“Britain is the seventh richest nation on the planet. It is an obscenity then that companies that can well afford to pay a decent wage and provide secure work refuse to do so, profiting from the uncertainty and misery of the zero hours labour they impose on the workforce.
“It is high time we had tough action taken by Government because they are creating the conditions that allow the scourge of zero hours employment to flourish.”