Trade unions slam "mass exploitation" of low-hour contracts

As submissions are made on a proposed new Banded Hours Contract Bill...

Trade unions slam "mass exploitation" of low-hour contracts

Picture by: Rui Vieira/PA Archive/PA Images

Trade unions have called for an end to low-hour and "if and when" contracts for workers, as an Oireachtas committee took submissions on a new bill aimed at tackling the issue.

The proposed Sinn Féin-sponsored Banded Hours Contract Bill would ensure that workers who are consistently putting in hours above the minimum specified in their contract would have to be moved to a higher band of minimum weekly working hours, providing the business can afford it.

John Douglas of retail, bar and administrative workers' union Mandate told the Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation:

"This is about people not knowing from one week to the next how much money they are going to earn."

The Irish Times reports that Mr Douglas highlighted one unnamed multinational retailer which had Irish staff on 15-hour contracts, despite the fact that they are working for 30 to 35 hours a week.

He claimed that workers could suddenly find their hours fall back to 15 if they "joined a union or something".

Mr Douglas also revealed that Mandate had reached banded hour deals with other major retailers.

Patricia King of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) argued that a situation where workers are faced with such unstable, ambiguous employment terms represents a "really strong policy failure" on Kildare Street.

Ms King said that it was not a question of cost, as all employees are looking for is some security around hours they're already being paid to work.

She said:

"It's about control, and holding on to an existing imbalanced relationship."

Ms King added that you cannot balance "exploitation against workers' rights".

SIPTU's Ethel Buckley stated:

"It is the employers' strategy to have a large pool of casualised workers available to them. Workers can no longer aspire to rearing a family unless they are receiving State subsidies."

Political support for the bill came from Fine Gael senator James Reilly (pictured), who said:

"We all agree that the abuse of workers that is clearly taking place by some employers needs to be addressed."

The bill came before the Dáil last summer.

Sinn Féin's stance

Speaking before the Jobs Committee in February, Sinn Féin's David Cullinane said:

"The exploitation of people on low hour contracts, especially in the retail sector but across many other sectors, is an important issue. This Bill will allow workers to apply for a contract that is reflective of their actual working week.

“Unfortunately, we have far too many instances of workers who were on 15-hour contracts for perhaps ten years working 30 hours and 40 hours week in, week out. This is a way for companies to exploit their workers.

“This Bill offers a solution. It seeks to provide that a worker or his or her trade union representative, or a representative acting on his or her behalf, is entitled, after six months of continuous employment with his or her employer, to make a request in writing of the employer to be moved to a weekly band of hours reflective of their actual working week, as set out in the legislation.

“An unregulated labour market is in no-one's interests. It dehumanises workers, puts huge pressure on the State in social transfers, reduces people’s disposable income and impoverishes households and children.

“There is an onus on the State to regulate the labour market and ensure that workers’ rights, in terms of pay and conditions, are protected in law. This Bill will strengthen workers' rights by giving them access to a contract with which they can plan their lives. It will make a positive difference and I hope the Committee will endorse the sentiments and procedures behind it."