Zero-hours contracts – are they banned or not?

By Pat Rafferty, Unite Scotland Regional Secretary

The number of people on zero-hours contracts in Scotland has risen by 10 per cent over the last year: according to the Office for National Statistics, 70,000 people are on a zero-hours contract.

This represents a 10 per cent increase on the previous year’s figure of 64,000. It’s a worrying trend which we fear will only increase as Boris Johnson sets about delivering his Brexit dream of a low-wage and low-tax economy with minimal employment rights for workers.

This is where the Scottish government’s Fair Work First policy comes into play in the absence of employment law being devolved — which Unite supports. The policy sees conditions attached to workers’ pay and conditions for firms seeking grants or public contracts. It includes paying employees the Scottish Living Wage and perhaps this contractual clause is helping.

There has been progress in the percentage of workers earning less than the Living Wage falling to 16.9 per cent from 19.4 per cent in Scotland. But it’s important to highlight that the majority of work paid less than the living wage is in the private sector in Scotland where 343,000 or 24.8 per cent of workers still earn less than the living wage compared to 3.2 per cent in the public sector.

However, the rate of pay is only one element of the wider workplace contract and this is why we are concerned that the Scottish government’s policy doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Unite has repeatedly asked the Scottish government for clarity on whether the new criteria are being actively applied.

There remains a great deal of confusion on what now determines whether a company gets public funds through an enterprise agency grant or on what grounds a company will be refused a public procurement contract through the new Fair Work First criteria.

For example, zero-hours contracts are not banned but instead the Scottish government says that there should be “no inappropriate use.” From our perspective any use is inappropriate and it should be leading by example by pledging to ban the use of these contracts — instead of leaving a back-door open.

We have written to government ministers on a number of occasions in order to dig a little bit deeper on what this criteria now means such as Fergus Ewing, the cabinet secretary for the rural economy, regarding the ÂŁ1.7 million award to Bhagat Holdings Limited. The company has taken over the site of the former Pinneys of Scotland seafood plant in Annan.

Unite is pleased that around 120 much needed jobs are likely to be created and it’s right that levers are used to attract investment. However, we have got to demand that in return for taxpayers’ money, zero-hours contracts will be banned completely and that trade unions must have access to the workforce as conditions.

The Scottish government when asked directly on these issues in parliament stated that it will “attach conditionality to as many grants, funding streams and public contracts as we can by the end of this parliamentary session.” In our opinion this is evasive and elastic in terms of the timeline for implementation.

Despite the positive words of intent from the Scottish government that’s all it appears to be — warm words. In the context of Brexit and the Tory government it’s vital that the Scottish government proactively does all it can to protect and support workers including those who represent them.

The time for action is now. Unite is determined to hold every government to account and we will not let the Scottish government off the hook on creating decent working standards and conditions for all who live here.

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