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Zero hours contracts: Exploitative or a flexible friend for job seekers?

PUBLISHED: 08:00 26 May 2015

Waitress in bar with tray of drinks

Waitress in bar with tray of drinks

(C) 2008 Jupiterimages

Archant Investigations journalist Emma Youle examines the prevalence of zero hours contracts in Havering

Hundreds of Havering’s workers are employed on controversial zero-hours contracts dubbed “exploitative” by unions.

An investigation by the Recorder has uncovered data showing 399 Havering Council staff – including adult education tutors, music tutors, catering staff and drivers - are employed on the controversial contracts as well as 600 election canvassers and polling officers,

The Recorder also found employers in the private sector hiring zero-hours staff, particularly within the care industry looking after Havering’s elderly and vulnerable.

In one hour searching online for zero-hours jobs, we found roles working for a prominent national pub company, a large construction firm, businesses supplying care workers, and at a private parking company.

Rates varied from £6.75 to £8.20 an hour, below the London living wage of £9.15 an hour.

Unions have condemned the zero-hours contract and called for it to be abolished, saying staff “don’t know if they’re coming or going”.

A Havering Unison spokeswoman said: “There is no defence for a local authority using zero-hours contracts. They are completely exploitative. They’re making people sit there by the phone wondering whether they’ve got hours.”

Businesses argue the contracts provide flexibility for the employee as well as the employer, but they can leave workers exposed to poor practice, such as no sick or holiday pay, employers cancelling shifts at late notice without compensation or imposing “exclusivity clauses” preventing staff from seeking other work.

Cllr Ron Ower, Havering Council’s cabinet member for OneSource management, said: “Some of our staff are employed on zero hours contracts, which are typically used for election poll clerks, adult education tutors, gardeners, some leisure staff and maintenance workers.

“This type of contract is beneficial to those who are often looking for a short term job or have seasonal work.

“Terms and conditions of the contract are always outlined to the applicants when they apply and the council never uses exclusivity clauses which would prevent people having other jobs.”

The council was unable to comment on whether its zero-hours staff are allowed to refuse shifts and how rotas are monitored, saying the terms of its “casual employment” contract are currently under review.

But Havering Unison says there have been complaints, particularly from youth workers.

One, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Recorder: “You’ve no idea when you’re going to be working.

“We get no holiday pay and we get no maternity leave. We get no pensions.

“None of us want to be on these contracts. Everyone that’s hired always asks: ‘Are there any permanent roles coming up?’ They’re all desperate for permanent positions and they do it as a way in.”

Use of the contracts by private firms within the care sector is also reportedly common, with Havering Unison describing it as “one of the worst areas to work in”.

“We’ve got a lot of members in care homes in Havering and they’re all on zero-hours contracts,” said the spokeswoman. “People go into the jobs because it’s a caring profession and they’re really exploited.”

The criticism comes after debate raged during the general election campaign about the use of zero-hours contracts – with Labour and the Greens calling for them to be scrapped, Ukip and the Lib-Dems seeking changes, but the Conservatives standing by them.

Conservative MP for Romford Andrew Rosindell backed his party’s stance and said: “It’s better to be working than claiming benefits. It’s not the best but it’s better than being on welfare.”

Leading employers’ organisation The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said employment regulations should target bad practice instead of demonising casual forms of employment.

John Cridland, director general of the CBI, said: “Businesses do have concerns around policies that could undermine our flexible labour market, which helped keep the wheels of the economy turning during the recession by supporting job creation.”

Do you have a story for our new investigations unit? Call Emma Youle on 07785 616 237 or email emma.youle@archant.co.uk

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