YOUR AM WRITES: South Wales East AM, Jocelyn Davies
Zero-hours contracts have become a hot political issue over recent weeks and with little surprise. These are contracts where an employee will commit to work, but the employer has total control over how many – or even, if any – hours a week that an employee will work. Some welcome the flexibility they offer employers and in some cases, workers. But they are often exploitative and leave a worker unsure from one week to the next what income they will receive, if any. One trade union describes them as Victorian.
In the last week of the Assembly’s Spring term, AMs were considering emergency legislation brought by the government on conditions in the agriculture sector. The government rightly enshrined minimum standards in this bill and I saw it as a golden opportunity for the National Assembly to speak with one voice in condemning and ruling out zero-hours contracts in this sector.
This would have been the first time a legislature in the UK had spelt out its opposition to such contracts. I wasn’t at all surprised that the Tories opposed my suggestions – it was their deregulation of workers’ rights that created fertile ground for practices such as zero-hours contracts. But to see Labour politicians vote with David Cameron’s party, when the Labour party promised to stand up for Wales against these very people, was deeply disappointing. Many politicians have publicly expressed concerns about zero-hours contracts but chose to vote against my amendment.
I believe we need to move fast on these contracts. A quarter of businesses are estimated to employ at least some of their staff on such contracts. In 2004 the figure was around eleven per cent. These contracts are spreading across the economy, including in public services. I’m especially concerned for the care sector where I know from experience zero-hours contracts are the norm.
We’re still struggling in this country with the aftershock of a major financial and economic crisis. Much of it brought about by a light-touch approach and minimal regulation. As we look forward to the future and learn lessons, I hope that we can all support conditions where workers have dignity and where employers have a labour market of enthused and highly-skilled people.
It’s difficult to strike a balance between flexibility and regulation. But surely, living week-to-week with the uncertainty of a zero-hours contract isn’t what we want for our children and their children in decades to come.