Zero-hours contracts in Norfolk: Who do they work for?
- Credit: PA
Zero-hours contracts have become one of the key topics of this general election. But how widespread are they in Norfolk – and what do workers and employers think? MARK SHIELDS investigates.
Whether in support or in opposition, on the subject of zero-hours contracts, there's no doubt this general election has seen both sides working overtime.
Their critics say they cause instability for workers unsure of their next pay packet, leave employees open to exploitation, and distort jobs figures.
Their defenders prefer the term 'flexible-hours contracts', arguing they are a vital tool for businesses responding to fluctuating workloads, and can give employees more control over their work-life balance.
But just how big an issue is the use of them in our region - and who do they work for?
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The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in the East of England, 70,000 people are employed in on a zero-hours - equivalent to 2.4pc of the working population.
Nationally, the figure stands at 697,000 people, or 2.3pc of the workforce, up from 586,000 and 1.9pc in 2013.
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The contracts are particularly common in sectors where demand can fluctuate – especially retail, hospitality, and tourism.
But it's their use in the care industry which has raised particular concerns. Unions say workers are often denied rights afforded to other workers, and care minister and former North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb has called for their use to be exception rather than the rule.
Jonathan Dunning, Unison's Norfolk county branch secretary, said their use risked 'impacting the quality of service that vulnerable people are able to depend upon', and called for local authorities to consider commissioning care only from companies which offered guaranteed hours.
'To say we are no fans is an understatement,' he said. 'There is no security of work, you never know if you'll have money to pay bills, and you can't sign on because you're not unemployed. You are in a cleft stick.'
With working hours decided week-by-week, many employees are reluctant to rock the boat for fear of losing work – something Mr Dunning could discourage whistleblowers from exposing bad practice.
Other union members have reported care workers being asked to pay for their own payroll costs, travel expenses and calculate their own tax.
Employers, meanwhile, say the flexibility afforded by zero-hours contracts means staff have more control.
Norfolk charity the Benjamin Foundation has a small number of such contracts – which offer the same terms and conditions as contracted-hours staff – and is currently recruiting zero-hours relief child care workers.
Claire Reynolds, director of services, said: 'The Benjamin Foundation delivers over 30 services and helps over 2,000 children, young people and families across Norfolk every year.
'There are several zero-hours contract posts within the charity, as they can benefit our services: providing flexibility where the staffing is to provide cover, or in areas where the levels of work fluctuate.
'Those employees who are on zero-hours contracts within the Benjamin Foundation tell us that it helps them to balance family life, other roles and other interests.'
Some senior business figures believe the attention the topic has attracted during the campaign has been disproportionate, fuelled in part by political opportunism.
Others say that zero-hours contracts are nothing new, and simply a rebranding of a long-standing reality in many industries.
Martin Dupee, chairman of Norfolk Tourist Attractions Association, 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?'
• If you have a story or issue for our new Investigations Unit please contact editor David Powles on 01603 772478 or email firstname.lastname@example.org