Green MSP calls for action on ‘zero hours’ contracts

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   By Lynda Williamson

Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian and member of Holyrood’s economy commission has renewed her call for action on ‘zero hours’ contracts.

A so called ‘zero hours’ contract is one which stipulates that the worker must make themselves available for work but will then be told from day to day if and when they are needed and will only be paid for hours actually worked, so there is no guarantee of work or income.

The strategy has been described as the ultimate in flexible contracts. The number of employees on such contracts doubled between 2004 and 2011, and rose 50% last year.  The privatised parts of NHS England are major users of zero hours contracts.  Concerns have been raised that workers on the contracts must be constantly on standby, which prevents them seeking more secure employment, retraining or even having work experience.

Holyrood’s economy commission has published the findings of its inquiry into under-employment which showed that zero hours contracts are a major concern. Ms Johnstone urged Finance Secretary John Swinney to use the procurement process to prevent companies using such contracts from being awarded public work, saying:

“The rise in zero hour contracts is a huge worry, as is the fact that they are more likely to be used in the sort of low-pay, service sector jobs taken by women. We already know the cuts coming from Westminster are disproportionately hard on women, so it is vital that the Scottish Government finds a way to clamp down on inappropriate employment tactics.”

While such contracts were traditionally used in the hospitality and retail sectors to cope with peaks and troughs in demand, a recent Office of National Statistics labour force survey showed that their use is on the increase and is becoming more prevalent in all sectors of society. Once the preserve of unskilled workers we now see professionals including doctors, lecturers and journalists being put on zero hours contracts.

Ian Brinkley, director of the think-tank the Work Foundation explained:

“Everyone thinks that they are the bargain basement end of the labour market: bar work, the worst aspects of retail, hospitality and restaurants but there is actually quite a lot in education and health services.

“All the advantages are unambiguously with the employer. For the worker, the problem with zero hour contracts is that you will never know from one week to the next if you will be employed.”

The total number of employees on zero hours contracts is steadily increasing and experts predict that the rise is set to continue.