Zero good news on zero hours contracts?

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There would appear to be modest signs of progress when it comes to the exploitative zero hours contracts that hundreds of thousands of Britons find themselves stuck on in the latest data.

Official figures show the number of firms using them did rise to 1.8m in the year to November, up from 1.7m the previous year. 

Not exactly good news, but the Office for National Statistics noted that the survey methodology had changed so cautioned against drawing firm conclusions. 

Meanwhile the proportion of the workforce on them stayed flat at 6 per cent, and the available evidence at least seems to suggests that their runaway growth has slowed. 

The Resolution Foundation pointed to a positive from another dataset which looks at the actual number of contracts in force. It came in at 901,000 between October and December 2017, a slight fall compared to six moths ago. 

However, the problem is this: There are still around 900,000 workers in this country who don’t know how many hours they’re going to get from one week to the next. 

In some sectors, hospitality for example, they represent as much as 20 per cent of the labour force, with young and female workers particularly badly affected.

It is true that the zero hours arrangement works for some of them. But only some. Others suffer, with shifts cancelled at the drop of a hat on the one hand, while the screw is turned if they are unable to take up hours on the other. The “flexibility” in the zero hours contract often works only for the employer. A sizeable proportion of employees on them are being ruthlessly exploited. 

It isn’t hard to see the reason for the modest fall in their number: Unemployment is at a 43-year low. 

As things stand, there are alternatives out there for people with bad employers, alternatives that include guaranteed hours for those that want them. 

However, that shouldn’t get the Government off the hook for sitting back while the problem has ballooned in front of its eyes. It is also true that Theresa May & Co are embarked on a suicidally stupid economic course with their beloved hard Brexit. The current zero hours slowdown could easily go into reverse as that takes away the alternatives. 

In the wake of the Taylor Review into employment, ministers proposed to address the issue by providing workers with the “right to request” a more stable employment contract. The word “pathetic” isn’t nearly strong enough to describe that as a response. You can request such a contract now, but if you have a bad employer there’s no point. The Government’s proposals won’t change that. 

On the other hand, Labour has mooted banning them. The problem with that is that it might hit those that the arrangement does work for.

Resolution’s senior economic analyst Stephen Clarke suggests a middle course: a new right to guaranteed hours for anyone who has in practice been doing regular hours on a zero hours contract for at least three months.

A law to enforce that would require very careful wording. It would need to be sufficiently robust to counter attempts by bad employers to get around it. 

But it’s not a bad place to start. 

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