Is it all about zero-hours? The UK’s political parties have made zero hour contracts part of their electioneering – but how have their manifestos looked at employment issues?
Jobs – and zero-hour contracts – have been at the heart of the UK’s General Election campaign. But as the electioneering reaches its final phases, it is worth looking at how each major party stands on employment law. And given that rhetoric over zero-hours is getting so much airtime – along with the Living Wage – it is strange how little reference is made to it in the main manifestos.
The Conservatives say they accept the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission that the National Minimum Wage should rise to over £8 an hour by the end of the decade. They also want businesses to support the Living Wage and want to take action to eradicate abuses of workers, including exclusivity in zero-hour contracts. It stated it would ‘transform policy, practice and public attitudes’, so that hundreds of thousands more disabled people who want to be in work, can find employment, and more women would be encourage to join company boards.
However, in all this there are almost no firm proposals or commitments, and the Conservatives’ promises make no reference to the employment tribunal system or the fee structure.
Labour have made their position more clear. It states it will increase the National Minimum Wage to £8 an hour by October 2019, and offering tax rebates to businesses which sign up to paying the Living Wage in the first year of a Labour Government.
One clear distinction with the Tories is on zero-hour contracts: “Labour will ban exploitative zero-hours contracts. Those who work regular hours for more than 12 weeks will have a right to a regular contract.” On the employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200, Labour says: “We will abolish the Government’s employment tribunal fee system”. Whether they are referring to just the fee system or fees outright remains to be seen.
The Liberal Democrats will ask the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage without damaging the economy. Its manifesto says that it will introduce the Living Wage into all central government departments and their agencies by April 2016. The Lib Dems say they will review the Employment Tribunal fee system to ensure it is not a barrier.
On zero-hour contracts, the party wants to create a formal right to request a fixed contract and consultation on introducing a right to make regular patterns of work after a period of time – but they do not say after how long.
The SNP wants to increase the minimum wage to £8.70 an hour by 2020, and wants to extend the Living Wage. The manifesto says it will ‘support tough action to end exploitative zero-hour contrasts.” That’s hardly a firm policy.
In what seems to be a move to break away from their environment policy areas, the Greens are by far the most progressive on employment law. They want a minimum Living Wage of £10 an hour by 2020, and make the highest wage in any organisation no more than ten times the lowest wage. They will also phase in a 35-hour week, end exploitative zero-hour contracts, and also implement more pro-union legislation.
The fundamental issue about the Living Wage and zero-hour contracts is striking the balance between higher pay and fair employment contracts, versus creating jobs and ensuring flexibility about working arrangements.
The Low Pay Commission seems to have a good record on getting the balance right about increasing pay whilst not destroying job, so it would make sense to follow their recommendations whilst scrutinising whether pay rates could not be accelerated faster than they suggest.
For my money the Labour Party proposal on zero-hour contrast is about right. Banning zero-hour contracts outrights seems a step too far. But 12 weeks should be long enough to establish whether there is a regular pattern of work – and if so the person should be offered a regular contract. The model is based on agency workers’ contracts where in 2009 the law changed to ensure that an agency worker is entitled to the same pay and basic terms as an equivalent permanent employee – and we have not seen any adverse effect on the use of agency workers.
But the whole issue of the Living Wage and zero-hour contracts is not quite as simple as the soundbites suggest. And as we know the governing party does not always deliver on its promises.