Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

FLEXIBILITY OR EXPLOITATION?

In R.Richardson on October 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm

The “zero hours” contract under the spotlight

A zero-hours contract is one where a company may offer any number of hours a week to the workers that it takes on. According to a “Unite” survey, there are now over five million workers, both in the public and private sectors, on zero-hours contracts.

Where they are used appropriately, such contracts may offer flexibility for employers and also such employees as students and retired people. But all too often such workers are merely exploited.

Where they are used appropriately, such contracts offer flexibility for employers and also such employees as students and retired people. But all too often such workers are merely exploited.

TRY PLANNING AHEAD!TRY PLANNING AHEAD!
It is difficult to plan holidays, social activities and child care when you don’t know whether you will be working, from week to week, or for how many hours. In fact a “Unite” survey disclosed that 22 per cent of those on zero-hours contracts work less than three hours a week. And many firms prohibit workers from taking on other jobs.

On the other hand, some workers are at times required to put in long hours, perhaps up to fifty hours in a week, without notice. A comment from a blog for Guardian readers said, “Your ability to be at your child’s school production, or watch your nine-year-old’s first football match becomes secondary to your employer’s whims”.

MINIMUM WAGE AND NO UNION:
Most of those on zero-hours contracts are on the minimum wage. They tend not to be members of trade unions, so have no source of help or advice. These contracts are not, however, totally restricted to low paid workers. Universities and colleges of education employ many teachers on zero-hours contracts.

Many well-known firms have large numbers of such workers. In Sports Direct, for example, 90 per cent of its workers are on these contracts whilst in Wetherspoons it is 80 per cent. Buckingham Palace, Cineworld and the Tate Gallery also use zero-hours contracted workers.

Over half of domiciliary care workers are on such contracts, and are only paid for contact time – not for call-out or travel time. Sometimes a house visit is cancelled at short notice, sometimes an extra one is added at the end of a working day, possibly disrupting personal childcare arrangements.

MEASURES TO END ABUSE:
Ed Milliband, in a recent address to the TUC, said, “We must stop flexibility being used as an excuse for exploitation”. He called for three specific measures:

1. Banning employees from insisting workers be available even when there is no guarantee of work.

2. Ending zero-hours contracts requiring workers to work exclusively for one business.

3. Ending misuse where employees are, in practice, working regular hours over a sustained period.

AND A CALL FOR PROTECTION:
Meanwhile, “Unite” has called for further measures. All workers should be given the full protection of employment rights from day one, and all contracts must include a guaranteed number of hours per week, with limitations on imposed overtime.

“CROWDWORKING”:
Crowdworking is a more recent phenomenon. Once a company would have a bunch of temporary workers to complete a time-consuming but routine computer task, such as data processing. Now through technology, workers all over the world can “collaborate” (sic) on huge tasks whilst sitting at their home computer. Many such workers are based in China, Pakistan or the Philippines, and local rates are paid. It gives the concept of “globalisation” a totally new dimension!

In the interests of research, a BBC journalist, L.J.Rich, spent a week working through sites such as “Clickworker” and “Cloudcrowd”. In 37 hours he earned just £19.16p.

JUST A REMINDER:
It’s all just another reminder that we can’t expect companies to behave ethically. Their function is to extract maximum profit from any business opportunity for their shareholders and directors. Which is one reason why it’s so important to give their employees the kind of legal protection that “Unite” is calling for.

By RUTH RICHARDSON.

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