Workers being exploited by ‘if and when’ contracts

SF Bill aims to clamp down on employers who use pool of low-hour contract workers

General secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King said a growing proportion of the working population is being subjected to precarious working arrangements. Photograph: Eric Luke

General secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King said a growing proportion of the working population is being subjected to precarious working arrangements. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Workers in the community health, hospitality, retail and education sectors are being exploited by way of low-hour or “if and when” contracts, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

A growing proportion of the working population is being subjected to precarious working arrangements in what is a “really strong policy failure,” the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, told the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

“This is about people not knowing from one week to the next how much money they are going to earn,” said John Douglas of Mandate, the bar and retail workers’ union.

“It’s mass exploitation and it’s wrong and we need to put a stop to it,” he said during submissions on a proposed new Banded Hours Contract Bill, sponsored by Sinn Féin.

If enacted, the Bill would provide that employees who are consistently working more than the minimum hours in their contract, would, after a specified period, be moved up to a higher band of minimum weekly working hours, unless the employer could show the business could not afford the change.

Banded hour agreements

Mr Douglas said there is a major profitable multinational retailer in the State which employs its workers on 15-hour contracts, even though they are working for 30 to 35 hours a week.

People who have been working up to 35 hours a week for years can suddenly have their hours dropped back down to 15 because they “joined a union or said something”, he said. He did not name the retailer.

He said the union had reached banded hour agreements with the other major retailers.

Ms King said all that was being looked for was that the de facto hours employees were already working and being paid for would be recognised. The issue therefore was not cost.

“It’s about control, and holding on to an existing imbalanced relationship,” she said. Employers can decide, at very short notice, how many hours you get and how much your earn.

Responding to earlier comments as to whether the Bill had struck the right balance between the rights of workers and the rights of employers, Mr Douglas said you cannot balance “exploitation against workers’ rights”.

Ethel Buckley of Siptu said the hospitality sector used to supply jobs that allowed people raise a family and buy a home, but not any more.

No longer needed

“It is the employers’ strategy to have a large pool of casualised workers available to them. Workers can no longer aspire to rearing a family unless they are receiving State subsidies.”

Although the contract cleaning sector, wholesale and distribution sector, and the security sector had agreed banded hour arrangements, this was not the case with the hospitality sector, she said.

Paul Bell of Siptu said that in the community health sector the workers being exploited were in the main female, low paid, and with basic education. Approximately 12 per cent were foreign nationals.

Ms King said that sometimes workers were being called in and then when they arrived at the workplace were being told they were no longer needed. This was “very prevalent in the education sector,” she said, where lectures might be cancelled at short notice.

Senator James Reilly of Fine Gael said the extent of the problem was disturbing. “We all agree that the abuse of workers that is clearly taking place by some employers needs to be addressed.”

One in three employees earn less than €400 a week and are in low-paid and precarious employment, the committee heard.