Workers can't pay the costs of zero-hour contracts

It's naive to pretend there are no benefits, but too often only the employers get them.

There are two opposing positions on zero-hours contracts. For some, these contracts represent the unacceptable face of a flexible labour market. By offering work only when the employers needs them, they are a new form of exploitation, taking advantage of workers in a difficult labour market. Yet for others, zero hours contracts are a necessary part of the economy, providing flexibility for workers to balance work with study, caring or their home life.

Labour are in the former category, with Andy Burnham suggesting they should be banned. Many recruiters are in the latter, arguing that without zero hours contracts, unemployment would be much higher. We are yet to see what Vince Cable – who today announced a review of these contracts – thinks, and there is still discussion about the extent to which they are a problem (The Work Foundation is holding an event on this topic in July).

But what is striking about the zero hours debate is how little we know about them. We do know that they are a small part of the labour market – but one which is growing and spreading. In 2007, around 130,000 people were employed on them. This has risen to 200,000 according to the latest figures. This figure is small (less than 1 per cent of the labour market) but probably an underestimate (many do not realise they are on zero-hours contracts). We also know that zero hours contracts are more prevalent in sectors like hospitality and care, but that they are potentially spreading into middle-class professions such as university teaching.

The rest of the evidence is anecdotal. While zero hours contracts can be practical for students looking for some cash on the side, they can be extremely difficult for workers reliant on an erratic income. This uncertainty has other consequences, with anecdotal evidence that they lead to some “sharp” employment practices. For example, without fixed hours, workers are less likely to speak up for their rights or join a union. A lack of training and a "casual labour" attitude can restrict progression, leaving people stuck in dead-end jobs.

And there is one important question we are yet to find an answer to: whether the recent rise in zero-hours contracts is a short-term effect of the recession, or a long-term change in the labour market.

So zero-hours contracts are a mixed bag. But what can Vince do about it? Given that these contracts are important for so many people, banning them seems draconian. So measures are probably needed in two areas. First, we need to intensify efforts to ensure that employers who abuse these contracts don’t get away with it. Yet, given our poor record on enforcing the minimum wage, it is hard to be confident that this will happen.

Second, efforts are needed to provide support for people on the sharp end of zero hours contracts. New tax credits to help them achieve a reasonable income are an important potential solution. And the design of the (increasingly) long-awaited Universal Credit will also be important.

The UK has – relative to most countries – an extremely flexible labour market. For the most part, this is a good thing, keeping employment relatively high. But it does come with costs, and we haven’t always been good at managing these. Zero hours contracts are the latest such labour market problem, with both costs and benefits. The challenge for Vince is to keep the benefits, but make sure workers don’t pay the cost.

Photograph: Getty Images

Neil is the Senior Economist at The Work Foundation

 

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.