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Column: Why we need to ban zero-hours contracts

Working on a zero-hours contract means you can’t budget or plan your life – and causes people to become stuck in a cycle of poverty, writes Ciaran Garrett.

Ciaran Garrett

THERE IS AN ongoing debate taking place in the UK on the need to ban zero-hours contracts. A recent poll by Yougov found that 56 per cent of the British public favour these contracts being abolished and only 25 per cent are against. It’s time we started talking about banning zero-hours contracts and creating decent work here in Ireland too.

The problem with zero-hours contracts is that they do not provide workers with a set number of hours work each week. A person on one of these contracts is constantly on call from the employer waiting to get called into work. One week a worker may get 30 hours of work, the next week they might not get any hours work at all. This uncertainty means it’s next to impossible for workers on zero-hours contracts to properly plan their life and have a decent standard of living.

Take this as an example: Louise is 36, has two kids and rents a house in Galway. She works in a supermarket in the city centre but isn’t able to effectively plan for paying for food, rent and household bills because she has no idea how many hours of work she will be getting each week. To help to pay her bills, Louise has to turn to loan-sharks who lend money at high interest rates. She’s never been able to buy a family home for her family because the bank doesn’t want to lend money to someone who doesn’t have a guaranteed income. Louise would like to go to college to improve her career prospects but she can’t commit to lecture hours when she might get called into work at short notice.

This is the reality of life for many people who work on zero hours contracts. The only certainty for them is uncertainty.

Research carried out by Mandate Trade Union in 2013 found that 17 per cent of people living below the poverty line work in precarious jobs with zero-hours contract jobs. The research also found that 75 per cent of people working in these jobs report suffering from stress and find it difficult to cope financially.

As this research shows, one of the most significant ways we can build a fairer and healthier society is by improving working conditions. Having worked on a zero-hours contract myself, I know firsthand how difficult it is to plan and budget for your daily life when you don’t know when you’ll be required to work and how much you’ll be earning each week.

The use of zero-hours contracts is especially popular in the retail and hospitality sector. McDonald’s, a huge multi-national company making billions of dollars in profit each year, has over 90 per cent of its non-managerial staff in Ireland working on zero hours contracts.

The argument used by the business lobby for these contracts is that they provide businesses with flexibility. “Flexibility” in this instance is a code word for profit maximisation as workers on zero-hours contracts do not get sick pay, holiday pay or overtime.

Despite business lobby spin about these contracts being good for business, research from the Work Foundation shows an insecure workforce is likely to be less productive than a workforce on fixed-hours contracts. That’s one of the reasons why Hovis, a large bakery firm in the UK, has stopped hiring workers on zero-hours contracts. In Ireland the HSE have also stopped hiring home help workers on these contracts after successful campaigning for their abolition from the workers.

Another argument used is that zero-hours contracts benefit workers who want flexibility in the workplace. However, a recent report from the Resolution Foundation in the UK found that most workers do not turn down work when the employer calls them for a real fear of being punished by their employer. The survey found that 20 per cent of workers reported having wages docked or not being offered work for a while as punishment by the employer for turning down work.

Abolishing zero-hours contracts would help improve the lives of the many thousands of workers in Ireland currently trapped in precarious employment. It also wouldn’t cost the government any money. In fact, it would be a money-saving measure in reducing the demand for income supplements from the Department of Social Welfare and boosting consumer spending in the economy.

Banning zero hours contracts would be a strong commitment from the government that job creation in post-bailout Ireland is not just about the number of jobs created, but also about the quality of jobs. The economic model which brought our country to financial ruin and worsened inequality centered on the interests of capital. In order to foster social renewal and build a robust, sustainable economy, an economic approach which respects the rights and contributions of workers to the economy is needed and banning zero hours contracts would be a positive move in that direction.

Ciaran Garrett is the National Chairperson of Labour Youth & a Trade Union Activist. Twitter @ciaran_garrett

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