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To tackle the Great British Rip Off, we must end zero-hours contracts

So the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has finally admitted what we all know – there are far more people on zero hours contracts than the official figures suggested. On Monday the ONS increased the official count of zero hours contracts from 250,000 to nearly 600,000. Some bodies suggest the actual figure is even higher – the Chartered Institute of Personal Development has estimated that more than a million workers are on zero hours contracts.

Zero-hours are not part-time contracts – they guarantee no regular hours or income. You are waiting on the call of the employer, hoping that you get offered a few hours work. Even if you are broadly happy with the idea of the contract the reality is somewhat different – on what basis is work offered? Are you allowed to refuse? Are there formal or informal sanctions for refusing? We know from the research that only a third of companies who use zero hours contracts have formal procedures for allocating or refusing work. For the vast majority of those on zero hours contracts it comes down to who the boss likes best and those who always say yes. These contracts are intrinsically exploitative.

What really makes me angry is when companies employ full time staff on zero-hours contracts. Yep, it’s perfectly legal to do so. You can work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and still be on a zero hours contract. The employer can simply decide at any time that there is no more work for you and send you home. This is called the compliant flexible workforce.

So what is to be done?

There are plenty of good companies out there who get by without zero hours contracts, but they must compete with companies who ruthlessly exploit zero-hours contracts to gain a competitive advantage. Perhaps we should be looking at a legal right to regularisation – if you’ve been on zero hours contract with regular hours for more than twelve weeks then clearly it is not a zero hours job. This would end the basic injustice of a zero hours contract and provide a route to secure employment.

Where genuine short term zero-hours contracts exist, there should be an end to exclusivity –a worker should be able to maintain several such contracts at once. There should also be a requirement upon companies that offer these forms of contract to maintain clear procedures for allocating and refusing work – no more work allocations based on favouritism.

Perhaps most radically, and given that the introduction of Employment Tribunals fees put justice beyond the reach of most workers, surely one solution is a new requirement upon employers to give any form of temporary worker information regarding their employment rights – including their right to join and be represented by a trade union should they so wish.

These are all measures that require government action and I’m pleased that the first two points are already under consideration by the Labour leadership. In the meantime unionstogether is working to end zero-hours contracts throughout local government – why not ask your local Labour councillors to table our model motion on zero hours contracts? If they succeed then the Council is required to end the use of zero hours contracts and take steps to eliminate them in their supply chain. It’s local action that you can take to eliminate exploitative employment practices in your community.

Finally, unionstogether is working with Class and the Trade Union Group of Labour MP’s on a series of policy events entitled the Great British Rip Off. These events are an opportunity to connect with local union and political activists around the country and talk about what is happening in our communities. Our first events have been a huge success and we hope this is set to continue. Our next event is in Cardiff on 15th May, but over the coming months we want to visit communities all over the country to hear people’s experiences of work and life – issues such as zero hours contracts. If there are no events in your local area, sign up and tell us your ideas here.