Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Welcome To Zero-Hours-Tolerant Newham

In the wake of the CIPD report this week suggesting that up to one million workers in the UK are on zero hours contracts – where an employee is expected to be on-call and is paid only for hours worked – the discovery that Newham council uses them has been highlighted on Mike Law's blog but hasn't yet made it into the Newham Recorder. The paper should probably pay more attention. This is a story that has the potential to deeply embarrass not only Newham Labour's council leadership but the national Labour Party too.

The Freedom of Information (FoI) request that reveals the number of staff on zero-hour contracts is buried deep within the FoI Disclosure logs on the council's website. So that others don't have to search for it, enquiry number 15701 on page 48 of the 228-page log for May 2013 says the following:

Subject: Zero Hour Contracts

I would like to know

(a) How many workers employed by the council are employed through zero hours contracts.

- I’d like figures in the financial year ending 2012-13 and
- for the financial year ending 2009-10

(b) For both years, I’d like a breakdown of workers employed in this way:
i – Directly through the council
ii – By private companies operating on council contracts

c) What percentage the figure is for each year of total council employees

The council's response was as follows:

1. A total of 1060 workers were employed by Newham Council through zero hour contracts during 2012/2013. This represented 7.6% of all of our employees as of the 31st March 2013. These are sessional workers, or casual staff who work on an as-and-when basis. They work largely in schools and community centres delivering advice sessions, tuition and sports coaching.

These sessional workers are not subject to a ‘mutuality of obligation’. That means they do not have to work when asked, nor are we obliged to ask them to work. All other employees are required to work to contract and we are obliged to provide them with their contracted hours.

A total of 1044 workers were employed in the same way through zero hour contracts during 2009/2010. This represented 7.6% of all employees as of 31st March 2010.

2. All of the employees holding zero hour contracts were employed directly through the Council. It is not possible for us to determine whether or not any of the private companies operating on council contracts during the periods given employed any staff on zero hours contracts.

3. As of 31st March 2013, 7.6% of all employees were on zero hour contracts.
As of 31st March 2010, 7.6% of all employees were on zero hour contracts.

Zero-hour contracts are the classic example of McJobs – it's no shock that 90% of McDonalds staff are on them. Not everyone thinks they are a bad thing – the almost comically blue-blooded Etonian Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who married an heiress, took his nanny with him when out canvassing and will never, ever experience what Jarvis Cocker called a life “with no meaning or control”, thinks zero-hour contracts are great for business. However, people I know who have been on them describe this type of contract making their lives more precarious – slashing their previously regular wages when introduced (by as much as 50%) and often leading to dismissal when their period of employment might lead to some actual rights (usually close the two-year mark). Equally, Newham council may talk about ‘mutuality of obligation’ and that workers are not forced to work when asked, but the experience of people I've spoken to (who mainly work in home care) is that refusing to accept on-call hours when asked means an employer stops ringing: you card is marked as 'unreliable'. This places enormous pressure to accept any hours, no matter how inconvenient, which makes the idea of having anything like 'quality time' equally precarious.

What makes the discovery that a significant number of Newham council staff – around one in every thirteen workers – are on zero-hour contracts so politically damaging for Labour is not just the decision of its leader Ed Miliband to highlight how “for too many people in Britain, the workplace is nasty, brutish and unfair” and to specifically condemn “the exploitation of zero hours contracts to keep people insecure” and .”using agency workers to unfairly avoid giving people the pay and conditions offered to permanent staff”. It's that this keynote 'One Nation' speech was made at Newham Dockside, the home of the zero-hours-tolerant Newham council.

It's damaging too because a statement that I wholeheartedly agree with by Dave Prentis, General Secretary of local government union UNISON, said:“the vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain”. Yet one Unison National Executive Committee member, John Gray. cannot possibly support his General Secretary without facing accusations of hypocrisy, because he is a Labour councillor in zero-hours-tolerant Newham council.

And it's damaging for precisely the reasons Mike Law has highlighted – that not one of the prospective Labour candidates standing for zero-hours-tolerant Newham council has had a single word to say on this issue.

Opposition to zero-hours contracts is apparently Labour Party policy. So will the party's 100% majority of local councillors - and the candidates who face inevitable election in 2014 - make a start on their leader's concerns about "our responsibilities to each other" by taking a stand in their own borough?

1 Comment:

Europe's No 1 Anti Ryanair Campaigner John Foley.... said...

Great info on Zero-Hours contracts.
A lot is in the news regarding this at present which is great.Ryanair have a cabin crew workforce of 5000, 80% are on probationary contracts which are Zero-Hours.This is called exploitation.

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