‘Zero-hours contracts create modern slavery’: the long-term economic risk of zero-hours contracts


Last week, MPs endorsed the TUC’s agenda for workplaces with zero-hours contracts. Labour says these clauses operate in a hidden world, where workers have few protections and often precarious, temporary employment. Most workers in these contracts are women, young people and those from minority ethnic backgrounds. The government has said it will back the proposal.

Our position document on zero-hours contracts could be a useful guide for lawmakers. It builds on a parliamentary inquiry last year into fair and proper hours for employees and a review of modern slavery by a coalition of business and charity groups. We call for an independent body to scrutinise the implementation of anti-modern slavery legislation. We have learned through the inquiry that vulnerable workers – children, for example – are more likely to experience exploitation when they lack a fixed contract.

Zero-hours contracts come with a wide range of risks, from workplace bullying to depression and mental health problems. Research by Citizens Advice shows that some people who have no fixed hours at work are effectively indebted, owing money for expenses such as childcare or transport, as well as being unable to manage their day-to-day lives. How many others are denied contracts that can be renewed or go unpaid? None of this should happen.

Our report shows that with enforced rights to a fixed amount of hours, workers would have the freedom to choose if and when they want to work, as opposed to being unable to work for less pay during working hours when conditions are not optimum. Government-approved hours guarantee systems could also help address this issue, which can act as a mechanism for forced labour.

The policy platform is endorsed by E4.Working and the TUC, and mirrors the key recommendations of the inquiry into modern slavery which called for clearer rules and a dedicated body to monitor the implementation of anti-slavery legislation. By promising to create this body, Labour is taking a major step towards restoring basic rights to the modern low-paid workforce. Our suggestions on how to ensure that zero-hours contracts are put to proper and open democratic and scientific scrutiny may also encourage MPs to look at their position.

Respect the outcome – but challenge the system in parliament.

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