Business secretary Vince Cable today (June 25) announced plans to lift restrictions on staff employed on zero-hour contracts, enabling them to seek additional work when they are offered insufficient hours by employers.
Under existing laws, employers can use exclusivity clauses to restrict contract staff from working for another company, even when they are offering them little or no work themselves.
Unions have welcomed the proposed lifting of exclusivity restrictions, which they said could free up 125,000 staff currently bound by the clauses. But they warned it does not go far enough to protect workers.
Cable said the government would not seek to ban zero-hour contracts altogether, but told the BBC the contracts had been abused by “unscrupulous” companies.
The plans follow a long-running campaigning by the unions calling for a total ban on zero-hour contracts. An estimated 1.4m British workers are employed on the contracts, which provide no guarantees over the minimum number of hours available. Retailers including Sports Direct are known to rely on the contracts.
John Hannett, general secretary of the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), said he welcomed the move, but called on the government to go “much further”.
He said: “Zero-hour contracts are a big issue of concern and their widespread use indicates they are being misused. Under this government the number of employees on zero-hour contracts has soared, with some estimates putting the figure at more than one million.
“Usdaw believes the misuse of the contracts needs to be tackled. We want to see employers put under a legal obligation to offer workers contracts that reflect their normal working hours. In order to identify an individual worker’s normal working hours, Usdaw believes the starting point should be to look at the working pattern and the hours worked in recent weeks – a 12-week reference period.”
British Chambers of Commerce director general John Longworth added: “Maintaining the UK’s flexible labour market is crucial to keeping unemployment down. Zero-hour contracts are vital for a successful jobs market, but they must be fair and work for all parties. The ban on exclusivity clauses, which bind workers to one firm, is a balanced way of addressing concerns.
“However, the government must ensure that any further changes do not jeopardise business flexibility or employment opportunities”.