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Zero-hours move a welcome start

The phenomenon of zero-hours contracts has appalled many observers.

They provide the employee with no guarantee of work, thus making it difficult for many to plan their household budgets or obtain mortgages.

The way they work in practice varies. A survey for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that while, 16 per cent of workers on the contracts said they did not get enough work, 38 per cent described themselves as working full-time. The contracts appear to be particularly common in the voluntary and public sectors and defenders insist they give employers the confidence they need to offer people work, even if they are unsure they can sustain a job at set hours, while it is often said the arrangement offers workers flexibility, allowing them to fit their employment around other responsibilities such as childcare.

But even in the best case scenario, workers on zero-hours can lack rights to benefits such as sick pay.

Reluctant to take any action that could be seen as discouraging employers from creating jobs, the Government has stopped short of banning zero-hours contracts, but it has banned exclusivity clauses within them, stipulations that the employee may not seek other work outside their zero-hours job.

These clauses are clearly pernicious, preventing employees from seeking other work to top up their insufficient pay. They must be ended and the Government is right to call on businesses and unions to help close any loopholes that might allow them, such as an unscrupulous employes offering staff one-hour fixed contracts, meaning that strictly speaking they are no longer offering a zero-hours contract subject to the exclusivity ban.

It also makes sense for business representatives and unions to come up with a code of practice on the fair use of zero-hours contracts.

Even so, it is questionable whether the Government has done enough. It would be very concerning if the growth in employment in the UK over the last year reflected a growth in zero-hours work. More than 600,000 people are already estimated to be on zero-hours contracts in the UK. Since the credit crunch and recession, there has been a shift in the jobs market away from full-time, well-paid work towards low-paid, insecure and part-time jobs, including the widespread use of zero-hours contracts. No government should be presiding complacently over the transformation of these contracts from the exception to the norm. The Labour leader Ed Miliband backs enabling employees who have worked regular hours for six months to request a regular contract, with a presumption of getting it, though it is not clear how his government would prevent employers getting round that provision by offering staff five instead of six months' regular work.

Zero-hours contracts can cause insecurity and undermine workplace rights; enforcing the ban on exclusivity clauses is a wise move, but it may not be enough to stem the inappropriate use of these potentially exploitative deals.

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Careers and Jobs

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