Cantillon: Miliband’s zero-hours pledge may grate with Greencore

Labour leader promises to end ‘epidemic’ of zero-hours contracts if elected

Labour leader Ed Miliband in Huddersfield while on the election campaign trail yesterday. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Labour leader Ed Miliband in Huddersfield while on the election campaign trail yesterday. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

 

Ed Miliband’s pledge to end what he called the “epidemic” of zero-hours contracts is likely to send shivers down the spines of big UK employers such as our own Greencore, which rely on an infantry of low-cost labour to cope with tight margins and seasonal shifts in demand.

The Labour leader said the contracts were “undermining family life” in Britain and pledged to pass legislation to give workers the right to a regular contract after 12 weeks of working regular hours. The pledge appears to be a response to David Cameron’s suggestion last week that most people on such contracts were seeking flexible work, a claim disputed by unions.

Dublin-headquartered Greencore, now the largest manufacturer of pre-packed sandwiches in the world, employs more than 10,000 staff in Britain, many on a casual basis. It ran into to something of an electric fence last year after admitting it went to Hungary to recruit low-cost staff for its sandwich plant in Northampton.

The revelation sparked an angry debate about immigration and workers’ rights, which rebounded badly on the company.

At the time, Greencore admitted it used agency labour to enable it to manage production peaks and to give it greater flexibility but it adamantly denied engaging workers on zero- hours contracts.

Unions, however, argue companies such as Greencore are fudging the issue by engaging people on zero-hours contracts indirectly through agencies, essentially sidestepping the legislation while rebuffing accusations of exploitation.

It’s difficult to ascertain just what is going on under the bonnet of big companies such as Greencore as many employees are non-unionised, immigrant workers, seemingly a silent voice in the debate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tories slammed Miliband’s pledge as anti- employment, while the Lib Dems sought a middle road, offering to ban exclusivity clauses that prevent people looking for additional work to boost their income.

The issue could prove a spark in the UK election campaign, which has, until now, proved something of a damp squib.

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