New laws tackling zero-hours contracts full of holes, says union

Mandate says thousands of workers put up with week to week income changes

Mandate Trade Union have launched a 'Secure Hours, Better Future' charter which would end zero hour contracts. Many workers don't know from week-to-week what hours and income they will have. Video: Bryan O'Brien


Proposed new Government legislation aimed at providing greater rights to workers in low-paid and vulnerable employment is full of holes, the trade union Madate has argued.

Speaking at the launch of a campaign to end so-called “zero-hour” and “if and when” contracts of employment, Mandate general secretary John Douglas said Government proposals, as currently framed, contained too many loopholes.

The union said that tens of thousands of workers did not know from week to week what hours they will be working and this could result in major fluctuations in their income.

The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty signalled that new employment rights legislation, which will outlaw “zero-hours” contracts , will be published in the next couple of weeks.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection said on Teusday that the drafting of the new bill was at an advanced stage.

The department said the proposed legislation aimed to strenghen employment rights legislation without imposing unnecessarily onerous burdens on employers.

It said the draft bill had a particular focus on low-paid, more vulnerable employees and provided for five key issues:

* Ensuring that employees are better informed about the nature of their employment arrangements and, in particular, their core terms at an early stage of their employment;

* Strengthening the provisions around minimum payments to low-paid, vulnerable workers who may be called in to work for a period but not provided with that work;

* Prohibiting zero hours contracts in most circumstances;

* Ensuring that workers on low hour contracts, who consistently work more hours each week than provided for in their contracts of employment, are entitled to be placed in a band of hours that better reflected the reality of the hours they worked over an extended period;

* Strengthening the anti-victimisation provisions for employees who try to invoke a right under these proposals.

Exploitative contracts

However Mr Douglas said the proposed new legislation “will not do what it says on the tin and will not protect workers from exploitative contracts and abuse of power”.

He said even after the proposed legislation was enacted, workers would have to wait another 18 months to elapse before being able to use this reference period to calacule average working hours.

“That will create a huge problem. It will mean all the employers will get their ducks in a row and chop hours all over the place in the first 18 months to ensure people do not get decent contracts when it comes to the look-back period .”

He said that while it was proposed for workers to have minimum working hours within specific bands , the bands as envisaged were too wide.

He said if workers were in a band where hours could vary from 20 - 35 hours, they could see workers’ income fall by up to 30 per cent.

Mr Douglas also called for an anti-victimisation clause to be included so workers could not be penalised.

The charter for secure hours launched by Mandate on Tuesday would involve a ban on zero-hour practices - including what it described as exploitative “if and when” contracts.

Mr Douglas said under such arrangements the employer only guaranteed 8 hours of work per week but the employee had to be available for up to 39 hours.

The charter also called for workers to be provided with secure hour contracts that reflected the reality of the average weekly hours worked.

It said it also ensured a maximum “look-back” period of 12 months or less to calculate the average weekly hours and the subsequent “band of hours” into which a worker was placed.

The charter also called for the maximum width of all “band of hours” was no greater than five hours per week

It would also seek to protect workers from victimisation for enforcing their rights under this legislation and ensure legislation was implemented so that current workers could avail of its provisions for hours already completed.

Case study: ‘It’s the difference between paying your rent and not paying your rent’

Dunnes Stores employee Muireann Dalton. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Dunnes Stores employee Muireann Dalton. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Muireann Dalton, a worker with Dunnes Stores, says she has a contract offering between 15 and 38 hours per week. She says that when she works the full 38 hours it is great but if her hours fall, for example to 27, it means a huge chunk of her income disappears.

“ That is the difference between paying your rent and not paying your rent, between getting your child school books and not getting your child school books.”

She says the insecurity of hours leads to burn out and stress as well as “mental torture” for people who know they are the main breadwinner in their family and see they are only being asked to work 24 hours in a particular week.

“On the other hand you have someone who cannot get childcare or who is e relying on family members to provide childcare being given 36 hours per week going to the manager constantly saying “please I can only do 25 hours per week and the manager saying tough, you will do as I say”.

Dalton says there was a situation in one store where two women sitting on tills wanted to change their hours. She says one wanted 25 hours per week and the other wanted 36 hours per week.

“They both went to the manager and one said; she is on 36 hours and wants it reduced to 25. I am on 25 and want it to increase to 36 we are doing the same job and can we swap the hours around?”

“ The answer was No . Why not? ‘Because I said so’.”

“That is the kind of attitude that you are getting. That is the kind of pressure that people are under.”

She says she has seen staff who were sick refusing to go home because of fear they would be penalised the following week by having their working hours reduced.

She says the provision of security of hours would have no effect on costs for businesses.

However, she says it would greatly affect the lives of workers to know if they had a 30-hour contract, they could not go below this level of hours.