Opinion: We need zero tolerance for zero hours contracts

Lego WorkersThis week Labour began to move the economic debate away from deficit reduction to living standards. It really is a shame that the party elected in 1997 to tackle social mobility and subsequently failed to shorten the gap between the richest and poorest in our society now seem to stand up for working families in hard economic times. Wednesday saw Ed Miliband’s dismal attempt to rekindle his relationship with the TUC but for me he did touch on an issue close to my heart; he committed to legislating to curb the use of zero hour contracts.

I have to admit a special interest, I have worked for a company that uses zero hour contracts for about a year. I myself am not on a zero hour contract. I am also a student and understand the level of flexibility that is required by some people. However I refuse to accept that flexibility cannot be achieved while providing income stability, holiday pay and a safety net for when you fall ill. It is also not constructive for a company to build a relationship with its staff using zero hour contracts resulting in a large staff turnover and an unhealthy competition for hours.

At our autumn conference in Glasgow Liberal Democrats will have the opportunity to shape the government’s policy on zero hour contracts. Currently Vince Cable’s department of Business, Innovation and Skills is conducting a review on the use of the contracts. According to the Unite Union as many as 5.5 million workers in the UK have them and since the last review under the Blair government their use has ballooned.

On Monday morning the party will debate the economic policy that we will take to the electorate at the general election. Unfortunately the motion currently only welcomes a review. I fear that this will produce the same conclusion as the Blair review that found that enough protection was provided to low-paid workers by the Minimum Wage act 1998 and the Working Time Regulations act 1999 despite legislating against zero hour contracts appearing in Labour’s 1997 manifesto.

We do have the chance to vote for an amendment on zero hour contracts, that gives a little more teeth to our position. Personally I would like to see tough legislation on the use of the contracts when they clearly benefit the employer more than the employee. I believe that low paid workers should have the right to enough hours that pay them at least the equivalent to Job Seekers Allowance or should have the legal right to seek additional work, a right that is often prevented by zero hour contracts.

By strengthening our hand on zero hour contracts we challenge Labour’s fairness title. Liberal Democrats can argue sound economic policy coupled with an inherent want for justice and fairness. If it is true that 22% of the UK’s workforce are on the terms of these contracts we cannot stand idly by. I hope that the voting reps among you vote for the amendment, and unlike Miliband we will be doing it for the 22% not to save face at the TUC.

* Richard Kilpatrick is the Chair of Campaigns for Manchester Withington Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrat Council Candidate for Didsbury West, Manchester City Council in May 2018.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • So 5.5m zero-hours jobs? Plus 2.5m unemployed? Does that mean 8m people with no guarantee of work next week?

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Sep '13 - 1:22am

    How much tolerance do you have for one hour contracts? The solution to zero-hours contracts is self-employment. People need to stop this left-wing populism.

  • I think you need to gather evidence of how these contracts work in practice before proposing any changes. Particularly if, as you say, 22% of the workforce are subject to them. It’s a big thing to mess with blind. As ever a few horror stories should not drive policy changes that affect millions.

  • “I have worked for a company that uses zero hour contracts for about a year.”
    So tell us about your experience as you should be able to: present the business issues that lead the company to use zero hour contracts, present how this was implemented and taken up and what were the actually effects seen and what caused the company to cease using zero hour contracts after such a short space of time.

    “should have the legal right to seek additional work”
    This should be applied to all employment contracts regardless of the actual numbers of hours specified in the contract.

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