A Parliamentary business letter from Conservative minister Esther McVey has revealed that jobseekers face losing their benefits for up to three months if they turn down jobs on zero-hours contracts.
Under the new universal credit system, job centre staff will be able to mandate claimants to accept zero-hour contract jobs, sanctioning them if they refuse. This change will take place despite senior government ministers publicly denouncing the use of zero-hour contracts.
Amid anger at the rise of zero-hours contracts, which do not oblige bosses to guarantee any hours, Vince Cable and George Osborne both talked about the possibility of legislating to regulate them. But if the changes around universal credit outlined in McVey’s letter come into effect, workers with parental or caring responsibilities could either be forced into working “on call” or lose three months worth of benefits.
At the start of May, figures from the Office of National Statistics showed that the number of workers on zero-hour contracts in the UK has risen to 1.4 million. This figure, based on a more thorough study, stands at more than twice the previous estimate. Studies by the union Unite estimate that the real figure could be much higher even than that.
The startling extent of zero-hours jobs put pressure on Business Secretary Vince Cable to commision a study into the use of the contracts, and to concede that their use has resulted in “some abuse” by “less scrupulous employers”. But thanks to the government’s changes to the benefit system, thousands of poor and vulnerable people might forced into precisely such working arrangements.
Labour has made much of McVey’s letter, pointing out the hypocrisy and callousness of the government’s position. It is right to do so, but its proposals on zero-hours contracts are far from adequate. Ed Miliband says that his government would ban the “abuse” of the contracts, but would not legislate to ban them altogether. He would stop contracts from including clauses which prevent workers taking up work with anyone else; but even Vince Cable proposes the same.
The labour movement must fight put an end to zero-hours contracts, not to tinker with the details.