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Retailers defend zero-hours contracts

Retailers, unions and the government are gearing up for battle over controversial zero- and minimum-hours contracts and what they mean for the industry.

Speaking to the West Midlands Labour Party conference in Coventry last Saturday (November 15), Labour leader Ed Miliband attacked what he called “a zero-zero economy - of zero-hours contracts and zero tax for those at the top”. He singled out Sports Direct, which is known for its use of zero-hours contracts, as a “terrible place to work”.

In October, Sports Direct was instructed to spell out the details of its zero-hours contracts after settling a legal battle with a former employee over the policy.

The retailer dismissed Miliband’s criticisms, saying it was reviewing its “core” employment procedures and adding: “With enemies like these, who needs friends?”

Other retailers hit back at Miliband’s comments, arguing that flexible working hours are integral to the market.

David Short managing director of Macintosh Fashion UK said the company uses a few zero hours contracts for students who return to education after the holiday season. “This allows us to re-engage with them at the next holiday period without going through the administrative burden of a new contract two or three times a year. This is usually a win-win as students looking for short term work are usually available at our busiest period- Christmas and the summer and winter end of season sales.”

The chief executive of one womenswear chain, who declined to say whether he used zero-hours contracts or not, told Drapers: “Flexible hours are suited to both employers and employees, particularly in the run-up to Christmas when you need more staff in stores as footfall is busier.”

Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said the business does not use zero-hours contracts, but argued that a flexible working policy is important to keep workers “productive and engaged”.

“Flexible working is a two-way street,” he said. “As employers place increasing demands on their employees’ time - in our case, asking for more weekend and evening hours - we should offer greater flexibility in return. Even for the most dedicated employees, we are only one part of their busy lives. If we make it easier for them, they will be more engaged and productive when they are at work.”

Amazon, which has been criticised for its use of zero-hours contracts in the past, has amended its policy and now offers its temporary staff guaranteed pay for 20 hours even if work isn’t available. A spokesman said: “We have agreements with our employment agencies that full-time seasonal associates will be paid for no less than 20 hours of work per week, even when 20 hours of work is not available.”

The Confederation of British Industry said zero-hours contracts play an “important role in providing job opportunities for a range of people who want flexibility”.

Christian May, head of communications and campaigns at the Institute of Directors, said zero-hours contracts were a “valuable part” of the retail industry. “It’s not acceptable for politicians to portray zero-hours as some kind of epidemic; that’s too simplistic. For hundreds of thousands of people they are very useful as long as they are not abused.”

The government is preparing to ban exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts that bar employees from taking on additional work elsewhere, even if their current employer cannot offer them shifts.

 

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