Belfast Telegraph

Zero-hour contracts abhorrent

By Boyd Black

MAY Day is a commemoration of an event in Chicago in 1886 when demonstrating workers were killed by the police during a general strike for the eight-hour day.

Working hours at that time were unbelievably long by modern standards.

Today we still have a working time problem.

But now the main issue is the "epidemic" of zero-hours contracts, where employers will not guarantee employees any hours at all.

While this provides flexibility for employers and, perhaps, for some employees like students, zero-hours contracts generally generate a great deal of insecurity for employees.

They have to be available, but they don't know whether they will be working or for how long.

They don't know if they will be able to pay their bills.

Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, has recently outlined some policy proposals which would attempt to control the problem of zero-hours.

* We need to ensure workers can demand a fixed-hours contract when they have worked regular hours over six months for the same employer.

* Employees should receive a fixed-hours contract automatically when they have worked regular hours for more than a year – unless they choose to opt out.

* Employees must be protected from employers forcing them to be available all hours and insisting they can't work for others – or cancelling shifts at short notice for no money.

There remain difficulties ensuring employers can't get around the controls; for example, by only offering five months' work.

Labour's plans to deal with zero-hours contracts, alongside Labour's Campaign for the Living Wage, are both part of its focus on the cost of living crisis.

The Department of Employment and Learning has announced a consultation on zero-hours contracts in Northern Ireland.

Hopefully, the department will take the Labour leader's proposals into consideration.

On yet another issue, we need to prevent a race to the bottom.

Boyd Black is secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland

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