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Employment: Preying on the misery of workers

We have to ensure that working time cannot be turned on and off like a tap by putting an end to zero-hours contracts, writes RONNIE DRAPER

Once again the TUC annual congress will be debating how we deal with the debacle of zero-hours contracts and their effect on more than a million workers’ lives. 

This exploitative way of employing workers in this country will not change unless we as a movement go on the attack and actively seek an end to them.

This year the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) has put forward a motion calling for the total abolition of zero-hours contracts unless requested by the worker themselves. 

This rider was put in to protect the minority of agreements that allow workers almost total flexibility to determine their own hours, not as a loophole to exploit the law. 

It is incredible that despite passing motion 17 at the 2013 congress, where in section four our comrades from Unison unequivocally called for “the outlawing of zero-hours contracts,” we are now going to debate a composite that gives scope and flexibility for both government and rogue employers to almost carry on regardless.

What has changed since 2013? Zero-hours contracts are not on the decline. They are increasing. 

They are get-rich scams that allow the employer to profit from the misery and uncertainty of working people. 

We have to ensure that working time cannot be turned on and off like a tap and that working people can seek real employment, paying decent wages that give them the opportunity to plan their lives.

Congress welcomed Ed Miliband’s speech on zero-hours contracts last year, but what was said on the nation’s news stations was not quite the same. And now the Labour Party is talking about what it will do after six months, should they get in power, saying that a worker should have the right to request a contract with fixed minimum hours and, after 12 months of continuous work, the right to be offered a contract of employment other than zero hours.

What do these statements actually mean to these exploited workers? 

How will Labour guarantee that these workers will do six months? 

What do they do if the employer refuses the request for fixed minimum hours? 

And would the offer of a one or two-hour contract circumvent the protections intended?

Like most other workers, I would like to see the return of a Labour government after surviving more than four years of this heinous coalition, but not at any price. 

It is not for the trade union movement to hold fire on rocking the boat just because there is an election in eight months. 

On the contrary, we should be looking for watertight manifesto promises that truly benefit our members.

The BFAWU thinks it is bad enough that the TUC is making joint statements with the CBI on traineeships without passing motions that have more holes than a string vest. 

As a movement we should be setting policies for change and campaigning to enforce those changes. 

Holding cordial discussions with government, irrespective of colour, does not mean diluting what we want. 

We have had fantastic debates on schemes such as workfare and the forerunners of traineeships and passed motions saying that they should be both paid and voluntary and if we believe, despite the TUC-CBI statement, that employers will not find a loophole then we are naive beyond belief.

The more we compromise our position the more we will find workers’ rights eroded and the employers’ profits soar. We should not give even the slightest credence to any scheme that means a worker is forced to top up their wage with state benefits, rely on foodbanks or to make choices that strip the dignity from going to work.

When George Osborne derides the unemployed as being some underclass which hides behind curtains while others go to work he fails to mention how many people stay at home at the end of a phone waiting to see if they will be at the beck and call of an employer who doesn’t want to be tied to a contract of employment. 

Zero-hours contracts massage unemployment figures, cost the taxpayer in subsidies of state benefits to allow employer exploitation and do nothing to strengthen the economy as the ability to get a mortgage, buy a new car or plan a family holiday are pipedreams for most of the 1.4 million exploited by them.

If we stand by and allow these contracts — or some other hybrid of them — to continue then we are rubber-stamping a return to the bad old days of pools of casual labour standing outside workplaces begging for work, an increase in agency labour and a proliferation of unpaid work schemes that will profoundly affect established terms and conditions and workplace agreements.

The time has come for us to say what we mean and more importantly mean what we say.


Ronnie Draper is general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union


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