On Zero-Hours Contracts

In a week dominated by stupid things being said by stupid British politicians, one of the stupidest of all was the claim by Labour MP Caroline Flint that the European Union is to blame for the rise of zero-hours contracts. Caroline Flint is a Brexit supporter, of course, so she will not be interested in facts, but it is a fact that the European Union recently adopted a directive that protects workers’ rights and, in most cases, rules out zero-hours contracts. It’s up to the national governments to implement EU directives, something that the United Kingdom has yet to do and obviously will not do if and when Brexit happens and all employment protections go on the bonfire. As a Labour MP you would think Caroline Flint would care about this, but apparently not. She’s content to recite lies she hopes will curry favour with her leave-voting constituents and perpetuate her own political career at their expense.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, the Oireachtas recently passed legislation making zero-hours contracts unlawful in Ireland `in most circumstances’. There’s a nice summary of the effects of the new law here.

I probably don’t need to spell it out but I rather think that the existence of this law and Ireland’s membership of the European Union comprehensively refutes Caroline Flint’s claim. Zero-hours are on the rise in the UK because of it’s own Government, not because of the European Union. I can think of dozens of other things that the EU gets the blame for that are actually the fault of the idiots in Westminster. Perhaps after Brexit British politicians will no longer be able to use the EU as a scapegoat for things they themselves mess up, though something makes me think they will continue to try and that the gullible public may actually believe them.

Anyway, the legal changes around zero-hours contracts in Ireland have had a significant impact in higher education, where many people – often (but not always) graduate students – are employed on casual part-time arrangements to run small group teaching sessions (i.e tutorials), demonstrate in laboratories, mark coursework and so on. The contracts on which such people have been employed have hitherto often been of the zero-hours type that is now unlawful.

As a response to this change in the law, here in Maynooth we have changed the contracts we issue to casual teaching staff, introducing clearer terms and conditions of employment as well as giving clearer indications of hours to be worked. In particular there is now a new category of employment designed for graduate students who are doing teaching, with terms and conditions that reflect their special status. All this required quite an effort at the start of teaching term this year to adapt to the new arrangements in time for the first teaching sessions. I only started as Head of Department on 1st September, and teaching started on 23rd, so this all caused quite a few headaches for me personally as I tried to get to grips with the new system. Fortunately, in the end, the transition actually went relatively smoothly and we have now settled into a steady state.

Of course it wasn’t the existence of graduate student teachers that precipitated the change in the law in Ireland. There are far worse offenders than universities in the use of exploitative employment contracts. Nevertheless but I am glad that the change has happened. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, according to UCU figures, around 46% of universities use staff on zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching.

8 Responses to “On Zero-Hours Contracts”

  1. Paul Hayes Says:

    It’s shocking what UK politicians have done, and got away with doing, in recent times but it’s not really the fault of a gullible public.

  2. jonivar skullerud Says:

    “Caroline Flint is a Brexit supporter, of course, so she will not be interested in facts”. The hidden premise in this syllogism is “All Brexit supporters are uninterested in facts”, which has the single virtue of being very easily falsifiable.
    This is what Caroline Flint actually said: “When it comes to workers’ rights, the EU isn’t God, The fact is local authorities up and down the UK have to outsource contracts to the European Union at the detriment of workers in their local communities. We have seen a rise of zero-hours contracts and poor conditions partly because of that outsourcing.” The main point here appears to be the indisputable fact that EU competition law bans local authorities from favouring local businesses, and also the requirement to open up an increasing number of services to competition. Note also the important word “partly”.
    I find it very hard to disagree with what Caroline Flint actually said.

    • telescoper Says:

      Well I certainly disagree. Decisions over outsourcing local services are political decisions taken at local level by local councils. It is mainly Tory councils that have gone along this privatisation path, but some others have been forced to by cuts in central grants by the Tories in Westminster.

      Once an outsourcing decision has taken place, however regrettable it may be, EU rules impose a fair tendering process. And thank the Lord they do. The alternative would be corrupt Tory councillors handing lucrative contracts to their relatives.

      This is all just the standard English approach of blaming the EU for decisions made by its own politicians.

      • jonivar skullerud Says:

        While it is certainly true that it is common (and not just in England) to blame the EU for things you do not want to take responsibility for yourself, this is only possible because there are actually a number of EU regulations that limit the freedom of local authorities to carry out their democratic mandate. Outsourcing itself is rarely directly mandated, but if some local council services are offered commercially, it is required that all public and private operators are treated equally, ie it is forbidden to favour public services in this case. How far-reaching this is, is disputed. Also, EU accounting rules basically say that public borrowing is evil, leading to pressure to contract out any public investment project. It should be added that some services, eg construction, have nearly always been outsourced, for good reason.

        The big problem is that the EU public procurement rules, far from being of divine nature as you suggest, ban a number of perfectly reasonable policies. I believe that favouring local businesses, which employ local people and put money back into the local economy, and which are connected to and understand the needs of the local community, is a good thing. This is illegal in the EU. Also forbidden are clauses requiring that workers have pay and conditions in line with local collective bargaining agreements. This is interesting because ILO convention 94 actually requires this. The EU Commission, in its infinite generosity, will graciously allow member states not to violate their international treaty obligations, but suggest that they denounce the conventions and would not allow the UK (which denounced it in 1982) to re-ratify it.

        Overall, the EU public procurement system favours big companies with deep pockets and armies of lawyers to challenge every comma in the process and the contracts, as well as gangsters who are willing to break the law and mistreat workers and gamble on getting away with it, over serious smaller businesses.

        So in summary, yes, i think it is far preferable to outsource to the council leaders brother-in-law than to some bulgarian setup operating under bulgarian labour law, which is in any case almost impossible to control, and which may well be set up for this purpose and controlled by the same brother-in-law through a shell company in Jersey.

      • telescoper Says:

        In summary, you seem to be saying that corruption is fine as long as it is local corruption.
        As for your cheap shot at Bulgarians I’ll just say that it does no you credit.

        In any case I am struggling to understand how Bulgarians could be operating under Bulgarian employment laws in Caroline Flint’s constituency of Doncaster.

    • telescoper Says:

      Flint’s statement about outsourcing “to the European Union” is just absurd. First the European Union is not a business. Second, if the statement is meant to mean ‘to businesses in the EU”, the UK is part of the EU so outsourcing to a UK company is still be outsourcing to the EU.

      I wonder if you would prefer outsourcing to the Council Leader’s brother-in-law?

  3. jonivar skullerud Says:

    I note that you made no attempt to address my substantial points. And it does you no credit to suggest i am taking a cheap shot at bulgarians. This is not about bulgarians, it is about the single market, and you know that. As for your last point, i suggest you acquaint yourself with EU law regarding freedom of establishment, free movement of services, the Posted Workers Directive, and the Laval and Viking cases.

    • telescoper Says:

      You pointed the finger at Bulgarians, not I.

      As for the “substantial points”, I didn’t see any. You’re of course entitled to your opinion about the Single Market but the way you represent EU rules bears little relation to how I understand them (which is not to attribute them divine status).

      I am aware of EU law in the areas you mention (though obviously not an expert), including the updated Posted Workers Directive issued last year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: