Zero Hours - it's time to stop the exploitation

Zero Hours - it's time to stop the exploitation

12 September 2013

By Jennie Formy, Unite political director

Just imagine how it is not to know what hours you are going to be working, not knowing when you might need child care, not knowing whether or not you can pay your bills for that week.  Not knowing from one week to the next whether you have work.

Well that is life for a million people whose lives are blighted by zero hour contracts.  And Unite believes that figure could be as high as 5.5 million,    

For a number of years Unite worked hard to persuade government to act to quell the growth in agency work.  Workers once in steady jobs saw a shift to casual work.   But once progress was made in this area rogue employers then alighted on bogus self- employment as the way to cut employment costs.  

These rogue employers, determined to have a large pool of ‘flexi-workers’ that can be hired and fired at will, have gone even further.   Increasingly workers on fixed contracts are being replaced with zero hours contracts - a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.  

A contract sounds as if there is a mutual obligation between employer and employee, but the ‘zero hours’ part of this so called ‘contract’ skews an already powerful relationship ever further to the employer.   

Unable to access equal treatment at work someone on zero hours can’t prove that they’ve done 13 weeks of employment and is therefore disqualified from workplace rights.   

Here at Unite we’ve been contacted by hundreds of workers, some not even Unite members to tell us of their experiences. We were so concerned at what they told us that we commissioned a survey of 5,000 Unite members asking them how they had been affected by zero hours.  So here’s life in zero hours Britain for at least a million workers – and some commentators suggest this could be as many as five million: Running out of money during the month
  • Needing to borrow from friends and/or pay day lenders as debt is routine
  • Levels of anxiety are high
  • Savings or contingency money is non existent.  So if the boiler or fridge packs in that’s it 
  • Access to credit is not available
  • There’s are penalties when trying to rent accommodation ; rent must be paid six months in advance
  • If a worker speaks out he/she lose shifts  
  • Zero hours contracts are not even short term.  Some workers are on zero contracts for at least 13 months, more often they are over 36 months  for the same employer

These contracts can be found right across the economy in social care, electronics; manufacturing; hospitality and the charitable sector.   Household names include; Boots, Sports, McDonalds, Burger King, and Cineworld .

George Osborne claims that the economy is recovering but for most people this is far from a reality.   For workers on zero hours contracts without security this talk of a recovery is a cruel joke.  

Ed Miliband to coin a phrase ‘gets it’.   At the TUC he committed the next Labour government to:
  • legislate to ban zero hours contracts which require workers to work exclusively for one business.
  • stop zero hours contracts which require workers to be on call all day without any guarantee of work.  
  • end zero hours contracts where workers are working regular hours but are denied a regular contract.     
Ed is right.  For an economy to work it has to work for working people.  And that means security not insecurity at work.  But we need to do more. That’s why Unite is calling for:
  • Restoration of sector level collective bargaining to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ in ‘vulnerable’ sectors including social care, hospitality, retail, food and logistics.
  • Workers to be defined as `employees’ to ensure delivery of the National Minimum Wage and associated rights including holidays, maternity and sick pay.
  • Guaranteed hours with a maximum percentage of contracted overtime. No opt-out without an express ‘compromise agreement’ following legal / trade union advice.
  • The government as the main contractor and purchaser of services should only award contracts to those employers who i) commit to fair employment practices that outlaw zero hours contracts and ii) agree to police not only their own employment practices but those of their entire supply chain to ensure there is no place for zero hours contracts
  • Revoke the coalition's changes to employment tribunals (ET) fees. Workers have been priced out of justice by having to pay £1,200 to access an ET to determine their rights and/or to prove mistreatment.
  • New rights to ‘accredited roaming trade union representatives’ to access employer’s premises, review compliance with statutory rights, speak to workers about realities and bring enforcement actions in Employment Tribunals, if necessary.
  • A mass communication campaign to remind workers of their rights and the steps they can take to enact these safely.  This campaign should also target bad employers, warning them of prosecution and reminding them of their responsibility to build a solid economy for all.

It’s time to stop this exploitation.

What do you think?  Email us at or tweet @UnitePolitics.