Ed Miliband is to propose that workers on zero-hours contracts should be entitled to convert their contracts into a regular job after only three months instead of a year, the previous timeframe set out by Labour.
The pledge, affecting 90% of zero-hours contracts, comes after David Cameron said last week that most people on such contracts want to be hired on a flexible basis, a claim that has been challenged by the TUC.
Cameron also admitted that he could not himself live on a zero-hours contract when pressed by Jeremy Paxman on a Sky News/Channel 4 interview last week.
Miliband is likely to use his offer as a counter to the coalition’s claims of good news on jobs, pointing to the number of jobs that are insecure or unproductive.
He will say: “Labour will legislate for a new principle: if you are working regularly, you have legal right to a regular contract. We will give working people more control of their working lives, we’re going to put an end to exploitative zero-hours contracts.
“The next Labour government will ban zero-hour contracts for employees who are in practice working regular hours. This absolute new legal right to a regular contract will apply to workers after just 12 weeks.”
The proposal goes well beyond the recommendations made by Norman Pickavance, former head of human resources at Morrisons in an independent review for Labour. He said workers should have a right to request a regular contract after six months’ continuous employment and to be given such a contract after 12 months.
The proposals have also been criticised by some employment law specialists, who warn that company bosses will dismiss staff just before the right to a full contract kicks in.
Miliband’s move will alarm some employers who believe it shows Labour is resistant to a flexible labour market, something they regard as the bedrock of growth in jobs in the UK over the last two years.
But Miliband will say labour market reform will be the basis of his drive to improve productivity and insists the change will be included in legislation in the first term of a Labour government.
He will say: “The problem of zero-hours contracts is at the heart of the key question in this election: who does our country work for? Does it work just for the rich and the powerful? Or does it work for working people – the people looking for a job, trying to find enough money to support a family, to make ends meet?”
The shortening of the qualification period to 12 weeks will mean that 90% of zero-hours contracts will be covered.
The rule would put zero-hours contracts on the same footing as laws for agency workers, so the employee would be able to establish a pattern of employment and a regular contract which reflects the hours they have worked over the previous three months.
The only exemption will be for employees, such as agency nurses, who specifically request a zero-hours contract because they want to work at another hospital as well as their usual job.
Miliband will also say that workers on zero-hours contracts should not be obliged to be available over and above their contracted hours. Labour, like the government, has said it would ban exclusivity clauses that would debar employees on zero-hours contracts from working for other companies. They would also be entitled to compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice.
There is no definition of a zero-hours contract in UK law, but it is estimated there are now 1.8m contracts in the UK that do not guarantee any hours, with some findings suggesting there has been a four-fold increase in such contracts since 2010.
The labour force survey shows an increase of 781,000 employee jobs between October to December 2013 and the same quarter in 2014, and over the same period there has been an increase in the number of people on zero-hours contracts of 111,000.
That would suggest as many as one in seven jobs are zero-hours contracts. It is also estimated that 15% of the total workforce are now self-employed.
ONS data shows that 58% of people on zero-hours contracts have been with their current employer for over a year, and that workers on zero-hours contracts work 23 hours a week on average.
The Labour leader will ridicule Cameron’s claim that workers like being on zero-hours contracts, suggesting the prime minister believes “people really want to be uncertain – about whether they’ll be able to pay the energy bill or not. They really want to be insecure – not knowing how much food they’re going to be able to put on their family’s table. They really want to be unsure – whether or not they’ll need to arrange childcare on any given day”.
Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said “We need a fairer system that guarantees zero-hours workers decent rights at work and stops them from being treated like second-class employees.”
John Cridland, CBI director-general, said: “The UK’s flexible jobs market has given us an employment rate that is the envy of other countries, so proposals to limit flexible contracts to 12 weeks are wide of the mark.
“Of course action should be taken to tackle abuses, but demonising flexible contracts is playing with the jobs that many firms and many workers value and need.
“These proposals run the risk of a return to day-to-day hiring in parts of the economy, with lower stability for workers and fewer opportunities for people to break out of low pay.”
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