Zero Hours Contracts: in the news and in our sights

Zero hours contracts have continued to feature in the news, exposing some tensions within the UK  Coalition government. In May, Tory Employment minister Esther McVey outlined plans to enable JobCentre staff to ‘mandate’ unemployed people to accept zero hours contracts with the sanction of removal of benefits. On the other hand, in June Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable attempted to deflect some of the public attention on this issue by announcing that the government would legislate to make exclusivity clauses unenforceable as part of the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill.

As the authors of a new Institute of Employment Rights pamphlet have pointed out the proposed legislation will have almost no impact, partly because exclusivity clauses are probably already unenforceable and partly because this misses the essential feature – and unfairness – of the zero hours contract: the fact that the employer is under no obligation to provide work.

The ongoing political furore over the use of Zero Hours Contracts is an opportunity for unions to press for a proper solution by building political support for legislation that provides a right to continuity of employment. However, we also have a duty to work now to use our collective bargaining strength to win tangible improvements for staff on these contracts. That’s why UCU is working to target major employers using zero hours contracts, making use of their high profile and controversial status.

The advantage of this kind of targeted approach is very visible in the case of the campaign at Gower Collegein Wales. UCU’s FOI revealed that Gower College was the biggest user of zero hours contracts in the Welsh Further Education sector, employing almost 80 staff on such contracts. The UCU Wales regional office and branch agreed to target this employer for a sustained campaign against casualization, beginning by proposing a protocol for fractionalising staff on zero hours contracts.

The college, in common with many FE colleges, pleaded funding constraints and an early agreement seemed unlikely, so the branch and region moved into organising and campaigning mode. Part-time teachers formed a focus-group and from this a part-timers rep came forward for the branch. The college seems to have smelled trouble as it offered some members of the group fractional contracts, but no agreement. UCU continued to press for a comprehensive agreement and began to target Welsh politicians, making good use of the high profile issue, raising it in political circles and maximising bad publicity for the college. A high-profile lobby of the Welsh assembly followed, including part-time staff and the UCU Wales regional official, after which several politicians wrote to the college asking them to explain why they used zero hours contracts and employed so many staff as hourly paid.

In September last year, under growing pressure, the college agreed to set up a working party to look at an agreement. In May 2014, following hard negotiations, an agreement was finally signed. Under the terms of the new protocol for using hourly paid contracts, the college recognises the need to ‘ensure that all staff feel secure and are appropriately supported throughout their employment’ and are ‘committed to appointing staff on contracts of employment that are ‘fair and equitable’, within funding constraints. Concretely, the college have agreed that those staff with four years’ service at above 418 annual teaching hours (including remission) can apply for conversion to a fractional post. The college has maintained that conversion should be subject to any ‘legitimate factors’ that might place provision at risk, but has also agreed to review the policy with a commitment to looking at reducing the threshold of eligibility where possible.

UCU Wales are not sanguine about this deal. It’s not ideal, but it’s a major improvement, a big step forward and a launch pad for further campaigning and bargaining. And it was achieved for vulnerable precarious staff by combining organising, campaigning and negotiation while maximising the opportunity provided by the current political context.

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