Government proposals fall short – genuine end to zero hours contracts still needed

Government proposals fall short – genuine end to zero hours contracts still needed

By Mike Treen, Unite National Director
The government claim to be introducing laws to “end unfair employment practises such as zero hour contracts” has been underwhelming at best.
I believe the government discovered just how widespread these types on contracts were and backed off making meaningful changes.

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Unite has been sent a copy of a model employment agreement being used by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand for their thousands of affiliates. It states very simply that the workers must be available 24 hour a day 365 days a year and will work when rostered! They used to call that slavery I think. But it is an example of how the culture of simply ignoring workers rights has become embedded in many industries.
What is on offer will do little to end the abuses the government claims it is against.
The Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Woodhouse released a statement claiming:
The proposed changes will prohibit unfair practices including:
  • employers not committing any hours of work, but expecting employees to be available when required
  • employers cancelling a shift without providing reasonable notice or compensation to the employee
  • employers putting unreasonable restrictions on secondary employment of employees
  • employers making unreasonable deductions from employees’ wages.
The changes will also mean that where the employer and employee agree to a set amount of hours, they will be required to state these up front in the employment agreement.
The wording of the brief statement and accompanying Q&A leave a number of questions unanswered.
The implication the government has given is that employment agreements need to state the hours of work expected from employees. This is a useful step but it won’t make much difference if employers can get away with just putting in a minimum number of hours and having the “flexible” arrangements for additional hours. What happened if in the words of the Q&A “the employer and the employee agree to a set number of hours” and the set number is only two or three hours?
For example the SkyCity Casino currently has all part time staff on an employment agreement that only guarantees eight hours a week of work. So all part time staff’s hours can yo-yo between 8 and 40 (or more) on a regular basis. This also leave huge power in the hand’s of managers to reward favourites to punish others by reducing their hours without a proper process. This is better than a zero hour contract but only marginally.
That is why we fought so long with the fast food companies in our negotiations to end zero hours contracts in that industry their to be an obligation on companies to offer available hours to existing staff before hiring new staff. This give existing staff the ability to increase their hours over time and there are regular reviews so that workers who work more hours are able to have their guarantee increased.
If the company controls the hours above a minimum then the additional promised protection in the new law which allegedly prohibits employers “from requiring employees to be available above their contracted hours unless they compensate that employee” is largely meaningless. In existing zero hour contract regimes workers had the right to refuse work above whatever they had been rostered that week but they always knew that if they turned work down they risked having their hours cut the following week.
That is the essence of the zero hour contract regime. It is not a rostering tool but a tool to control and punish workers. And that doesn’t change with an obligation on employers to offer a bare minimum as a guarantee when they employ someone.
The additional measures around cancelling shifts or sending someone home is largely clarifying legal obligations that should exist. The same is true for deductions from someones pay through no fault of their own. Stopping restrictions on secondary employment hasn’t actually been an issue for many people in the fast food or hospitality industry that I am aware of.
I had been a bit afraid that the new law would liberalise the use of casual agreements for employers but there is no mention of that in the media statements. Whilst it is not clear in the Minister’s statements it seems he is referring to casual agreements when he says zero hour contracts will continue to be allowed in some circumstances. That is an area that will need to be watched carefully in the new law.
Currently the courts have ruled that a genuinely casual agreement doesn’t allow the workers to be put on a roster. Once that happens then the employment agreement changes to that of a regularly employed workers with all the rights associated with that in terms of terminations requiring a valid reason and so on. This is often routinely ignored by many employers but it remains an important element of case law that needs to be protected. By definition a casual agreement is a zero hour agreement and therefore they will continue in this limited form. If that is what the Minister is alluding to when he says he won’t “outlaw” zero hour contracts that is not so bad.
But if we want real progress to be made then we need to incorporate in law a prohibition on hiring new staff unless the hours available have been offered to existing staff and the right of workers to increase their minimum guaranteed  hours a full time job or to whatever their preferred optimum number of hours is.
At the end of the day it is also a fact that whatever legal rights exist they will continue to be ignored by greedy employers who will do whatever they can get away with to suck the maximum value out of a workers labour. That is why it remains an urgent responsibility of the labour movement as a whole to work our a strategy to organise the 98% of private sector workers who are outside unions today. Only then will workers be in a position to advance their rights through real collective struggles. A hint of that power was shown through the Unite Union campaign against zero hour contracts. Much more is possible.