Reform of zero hours contracts could be a defining point of election campaign

Peter McTigueSince writing my last piece for the NTU election blog, the issue of zero hours contracts has featured heavily in the media. In last week’s leader’s debate on Channel 4 David Cameron admitted that he could not work under a zero hours contract and it is clear that the Labour Party are keen to attack on this issue as they believe it exposes weaknesses in Conservative arguments about the strength of the current economic recovery.

At a campaign event in Yorkshire later today, Ed Miliband will say that a future Labour government would guarantee zero hours workers the right to a regular contract after 12 weeks. While further details are yet to be released, this is a key policy pledge by the Labour Party and one that has been welcomed by Trade Unions.

Zero hours contracts are highly controversial because of the fact that they offer no guarantee of work. Those working in this way often have no idea how many hours, if any, they will be working in the forthcoming weeks and the lack of a regular wage packet makes budgeting and managing bills extremely difficult. Yet some workers welcome the flexibility of having no set hours and the majority of individuals working under a zero hours contract are happy with their current working hours. This is confirmed by data released recently by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which shows that 66% of individuals working in this way do not want to work any more hours.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are also broadly in favour of zero hours contracts as they believe the flexible nature of such working arrangements encourages job creation. They argue that zero hours contracts allow businesses to create jobs at the first sign of demand and that employers are more willing to engage people in this way rather than waiting for sufficient demand to justify hiring a full-time employee. Indeed the IoD has described zero hours contracts as “an essential tool for some businesses.”

It will be interesting to see how, if at all, David Cameron responds to Ed Milliband’s announcement. Even though the use of zero hours contracts has been subjected to substantial criticism, the Conservatives are keen to portray themselves as the party of business and at this point in the election campaign that position seems to be working. This is evidenced by today’s show of support for Conservative economic policies in a letter to the Daily Telegraph by more than 100 of the country’s most prominent senior executives.

Whether Cameron is able to take the sting out of media criticism over the use of zero hours contracts, whilst still maintaining the support of the business economy, could prove to be one of the defining points of this election campaign.

Peter McTigue
Senior Lecturer in Law
Nottingham Law School
Nottingham Trent University

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