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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C

Zero-hour contracts 'Clare has to live with her parents and can't afford to go to the doctor'

The government needs to play catch up with Europe and implement legislation that gives part-time workers security of hours, writes Sinead Pembroke.

PART-TIME WORK IS highly prevalent in many sectors, including retail, hospitality, higher education, community health and childcare.

But there are two types of part-time work; there are those who are part-time with regular hours and there are those employed on a part-time, “if-and-when” basis.

This is Ireland’s version of the zero-hour contract.

So, why are we not calling them zero-hour contracts?

In 1996 Dunnes Stores tried to bring in zero hour contracts. Dunnes Store workers, who were members of Mandate Trade Union, went on strike for three weeks in 1996.

Consequently, in 1997 the government introduced the Organisation of Working Time Act, which provided that employers give 25% of the hours they require someone to be on call for.

Therefore, the University of Limerick’s report on the prevalence of zero hour contracts (2015) revealed that in order to get around the 1996 legislation, employers use “if- and- when- contracts”. If they (the employee) are available and when they (the employer) have hours, then they call them for work.

This has the same premise as a zero-hour contract; it gives part-time workers no security of hours, and allows for people to be employed on low hours, which consequently means low pay.

Can’t even afford to be sick

For retail workers like Clare (pseudonym), the “if-and-when” contract is very common.

Clare works for a convenience store in Dublin, with no guaranteed hours, yet has been employed in this store for over three years.

When the full-time employee left the store, instead of giving Clare the hours, the employer hired another part-time worker, also with no guaranteed hours.

Most weeks, Clare is only working two days a week and claiming part-time job seeker’s allowance for the days she does not work. She doesn’t want to have to claim part-time job seeker’s; she wants to do the job she is doing, but getting more hours and security of these hours per week.

She can’t afford the doctor’s fee

As a consequence, at the age of thirty, her circumstances force her to live at home with her parents because she is unable to afford to rent or buy.

If she is ill, she will still come into work (in order to be sent home) because she will not be paid sick leave. Clare will avoid accessing health services such as a GP or the dentist because she can’t afford the fee.

Clare’s story is the story of many thousands of workers employed on an “if-and-when” basis in sectors like retail, hospitality, education and community health all over Ireland.

Lack of job security is driven by government policy

Precarious working conditions in part-time work are being driven by policy. Recently, we have heard from government ministers, on the issue of water charges and how they must comply with EU legislation.

So, it would appear that the government can pick and choose what EU legislation they must adhere to because there is EU legislation that gives part-time workers more security called the Part-Time Workers Directive, yet, the Irish State has not implemented it.

In France, for example,where this has been implemented, they have “honest contracts”. This means that if a worker gets a contract for ten hours per week, but they regularly work twenty hours, the extra ten hours are paid at double time, or time and a half.

This creates a financial incentive for a company to give an honest contract. As this was never implemented in Ireland, there is a gaping hole in legislation that would give part-time workers more hours if they want them and more security.

The Banded Hours Contract Bill

One solution being offered at present is the Banded Hours Contract Bill. On June 14 2016, the Banded Hours Contract Bill was introduced by Sinn Fein’s spokesperson for workers’ rights, David Cullinane TD, during private members’ business

This Bill seeks to address the right for a worker (after six months of continuous employment with their employer), to be moved to an increased weekly band of hours (as described in the legislation).

We hear a lot about retail companies, who pay the living wage, but what’s far more important is the weekly wage, rather than the hourly rate. You could command a very high hourly rate but not get a decent weekly wage.

It is absolutely necessary that the government play catch-up with Europe and intervene on this issue, by implementing legislation such as the Banded Hours Contract Bill in order to give part-time workers, in retail and other sectors, security of hours.

Sinead Pembroke is a researcher at TASC (Think-Tank on Action for Social Change).

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