With up to 1 million or more people subject nowadays to the sometimes pernicious insecurity of zero-hours contracts, it is timely that we return to this subject now that the House has returned. For me and for many people, not least those in the trade unions, it comes with a weary, sad sense of déjà vu. It was back in 1995, nearly 20 years ago now, when I worked at The Independent, that I remember first pursuing the issue of the abuse of zero-hours contracts, as they have come to be known. Those with long memories like mine will recall that the controversy was sparked by the case of Michael, a 17-year-old student in Glasgow who was asked to clock off and on up to four times a day at Burger King, and was sent home unpaid when there were not enough customers around. Burger King was then owned by Grand Metropolitan, part of the old-school “beerage”, and the irony was not lost at the time that its charitable arm, the Grand Met Trust, was in line to run a big, privatised careers service—of all things—in London.
Burger King eventually paid more than £100,000 in compensation to nearly 1,000 employees who had been either sent home or made to stand around, unpaid, until business picked up. Craig Bushey, Burger King’s then managing director in western Europe, said all the way back in 1995 that
“the action taken by Burger King puts this issue to rest and demonstrates our commitment to equitable employment practices.”
I do not know where Mr Bushey is now, but I wonder what he would have to say about Burger King still being right up there at the top of the list of users of these contracts, along with other high-street names ranging from Sports Direct to Wetherspoons.
However, by no means all, or the biggest or most successful, high-street names use these contracts. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, for example, see no need to use them; my hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary also mentioned Asda. Responsible employers, they recognise a trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. They negotiate with that union flexible contracts that provide workers with guaranteed hours, and other rights that most of us take for granted in a civilised society, but that also mean the work force can respond to fluctuations in consumer demand, as affect other industries.
If Burger King’s Mr Bushey were still around, one might expect him and his counterparts to ask, “Why does my business need these contracts when these other great high-street names and other businesses do not?” One would certainly expect him, if only for damage limitation purposes, given the controversy now, to look at all his outlets to investigate what was happening in practice, and to see whether poorly paid, unrepresented workers were being abused these days in other ways. One would certainly expect him, having done so, to have no fear of engaging full on with the full-blown consultation and formal call for evidence over the use of these contracts which Labour’s motion calls for today.
Along with other Labour Members, I welcome the content and tone of the Secretary of State’s response to this debate and his plans for November. After all, there is a recent precedent: the last Labour Government did exactly the same in the run-up to the agency workers directive, another measure that we discussed to promote fairness in the workplace. I will say a little more about that in a moment. Following the debate in recent months, there is already ample evidence to support such a call, to look at the causes and sometimes deeply damaging effects of zero-hours contracts and short-hours working, and, indeed, how the agency workers legislation is functioning in practice.
We have mentioned examining the use of these contracts in respect of care workers and the effects on the care at home of the most elderly and vulnerable people in our society. We also need to look at their use in further and higher education, at their growing use in contracted out publicly commissioned services and the public sector, generally, and at their overall effect on the services provided. Last but not least, we need to examine their use in the private sector, on the high street and beyond, and their effect on young people and on families, on their further education and training, and, therefore, on our society and economy as a whole.