Hero or zero? Norfolk businesses run the rule over Labour’s plans for zero-hours contracts

Labour leader Ed Milliband ia applauded by supporters as he speaks to the press on the steps of Heyw

Labour leader Ed Milliband ia applauded by supporters as he speaks to the press on the steps of Heywood library, Heywood. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday October 10, 2014. See PA story POLL Main. Photo credit should read: Lynne Cameron/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Labour has outlined far-reaching plans to ban 'exploitative' zero-hour contracts if they are elected to govern, but Norfolk business leaders remain sceptical about the move. Ben Woods reports.

What are zero-hours contracts?

Businesses who employ staff on zero-hours contracts do not have to guarantee them work and will only provide pay based on the amount of hours completed.

As a result, employers bring in staff only when they are needed, at times offering work at short notice.

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Holiday pay should be included as part of the conditions of a zero-hours contract, but sick pay is not.

697,000 people were working on zero-hours contracts as their main job between October and December 2014, according to research by the Office for National Statistics as part of the Labour Force Survey. This counts for 2.3pc of the UK workforce.

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The number is higher than the 586,000 – or 1.9pc of people in employment – recorded over the same period in 2013. So for good or bad, what are the arguments?

Martin Dupee, chairman of Norfolk Tourist Attractions, said: 'All tourist attractions I know use zero-hour contracts. Being candid, it would be good not to, however when we work in a seasonally affected business, what choice is there? There have always been zero-hour contracts for longer than I have been alive. They used to be called 'casual workers'. Nothing has changed.

'The base reality is that if it rains, attractions have a massively quieter day than if the sun is shining. What should we staff to? Do we make sure we have enough staff for the sunny day? What happens if it rains and we welcome only 20pc of the visitor numbers we were expecting? How can businesses, of which quite a number are charities, afford to pay everyone when there is no work? Do we all increase our admission prices to cover the costs of having full staffing?

'The alternative is to only employ enough staff to cope with a wet day. What happens if we are busier than this? If we don't have enough staff then the only solution is poor service. Surely this cannot be acceptable? This is the same for all tourism businesses and remember, in Norfolk, tourism is the largest single contributor to the local economy.

'There are benefits to the casual contract. Many staff genuinely enjoy the flexibility these contracts can offer. I accept this isn't necessarily all of them. However everyone employed in this industry at least understands the dilemma and accepts this.'

Michael Wilder, general manager of Petans, which provides professional safety training, said: 'We provide training for the offshore energy industry.

'It is notorious for its volatility with peaks and troughs, due to operations demand, time onshore vs offshore rotas, oil price fluctuations, contracts awarded and rapid uplifts in numbers that follow these awards. We rely upon a core staffing supplemented by personnel on zero–hours contracts.

'These personnel have permanent jobs, like the fire service or are even offshore themselves, and are looking for a supplementary income. They want to work, and it is essential for us, a crucial part of the employment make-up. It means more flexibility for workers and me as the employer.

'In our case they are not used to create cheap labour, we are not using them against their will, we offer the work and it is their choice whether to accept, as well as ours as to whether we offer it.

'Will Ed Miliband's pledge to outlaw zero-hours contracts alienate the business vote? Well in this he has definitely alienated mine, and also I suspect those of my 40 full–time staff and an equal number of 'zero hours' workers who we use regularly.'

Tim Holden, chief executive of Holden Group, a new and used car dealership, said: 'Following media reports in which companies have been messing staff about at short notice and threatening them with no further work, it's easy to form a negative view of zero hours contracts.

'Changing the law to legislate against a minority of unscrupulous firms will penalize those employees and employers who mutually benefit from zero hours working.

'We have some retired workers on a zero hours basis. Mostly they undertake driving duties. Collecting and delivering cars during holiday or peak periods of business.

'The employee's motivation is typically some extra money for the holiday fund or just to keep busy. The appeal is the variety and flexibility. Stopping zero hours working denies people the opportunity for some casual work and some extra money.

'Utilising additional employees enables us to react to situations quickly. It's not always possible to know when spikes in activity will occur and in competitive market you can't resource the business for short term peaks.

'Used sensibly zero hours contracts work for both parties. However employers who employ a majority of their employees on zero hours contracts and treat them unfairly deserve all the bad press they get. If it's possible for a distinction to be made in the eyes of the law then I would support that. Otherwise where abuse occurs, consumers and employees must vote with their feet.'

Jeanette Wheeler, partner and employment law specialist at Birketts, said: 'I have never in my years of practising as an employment lawyer been asked to deal with a case or any concerns related to a zero hours contract.

'They do not appear to me to be especially problematic. In fact in some sectors they are absolutely critical. Take nursing banks for example – many of our hospitals could not function without banks of flexible staff most of whom have substantive contracts and use bank work on zero hours terms to supplement their income. I suspect many of those who do zero hours work also have other jobs and this type of flexible working suits them very well.

'There isn't a problem which needs fixing so far as I can see and the Tories have already curbed the risk of abuse by precluding exclusivity in such contracts.

'In addition many people who have zero hours contracts will actually enjoy a number of employment law protections and are not entirely without remedy in certain situations.

'Zero hours contracts are simply a choice which some people make and which suits many very well and others not so well – for the latter clearly it can be a stepping stone to more secure employment.'

Labour's opposition: Labour has vowed to end the 'epidemic' of zero-hours contracts if it gets into government by handing workers the power to demand regular contracted work after 12 weeks.

The party said it would move to outlaw 'exploitative' contracts while giving workers rights to move into regular work after three months.

Labour believes the rise of zero-hours contracts has led to job insecurity and left workers feeling anxious about whether they will earn enough money to put food on the table.

In its manifesto, it outlines four key measures to overhaul the contracts.

• Labour will abolish exploitative zero-hours contracts, with rules introduced to give new rights to employees on zero-hours contracts, including the right for employees who have consistently worked regular hours to receive a fixed-hours contract automatically.

• The party will ban employers from demanding zero-hours workers remain available on the off-chance that they could be needed for work.

• It plans to stop employees from being required to work exclusively for one firm if they are on a zero-hours contract.

• And it will also ensure that zero-hours workers who have their shifts cancelled at short notice will receive compensation from their employer.

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