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ATL: Zero-hours update

by on August 24, 2012

Legal Eagle did not receive a reply to questions sent to the teachers union ATL and the TUC informed me that they never comment on an affiliated union. So, while we have had no developments in this area it is encouraging to discover that the zero-hours contracts issue recently featured on BBC Newsnight.

I have been informed that ATL have recently appointed personnel under the zero-hour contract terms, these are active from September. As advertised the post holders will not have a contract of employment an unfortunate precedent for a TUC affiliated union to set, made worse by the stance ATL have taken against zero-hours contracts in the FE Sector.

Prior to writing I contacted ATL (emails sent on 21/08/12 and again 22/08/12) requesting confirmation that the roles will be zero-hours contracts, no reply was forthcoming. We gave ATL an indication of what would be written promising to make any alteration if we were inaccurate on this point and again resulting in no reply. So, it seems fair to assume that staff recruiting for ATL members in September (the zero-hours contracts are for recruiters) will do so without a contract of employment, with no guarantee of hours worked, and denied sickness pay with the right to strike removed. Lest we forget these ATL roles will be promoting workers rights in the education sector while ATL recruiters themselves work under feudal terms and conditions.

On the 14 of August zero-hour contracts featured on the BBC `Newsnight` programme. This news item (excellent in parts) sadly failed to draw a distinction between a UK `worker` and an employee working with a written contract.  A zero-hours contract employee works without a contract of employment, this vital fact was not highlighted at any stage during the broadcast.

The BBC`s reliance on a simplistic dictionary definition of what the term “work” means resulted in a shallow analysis, the central role that written contracts play in UK employment relations simply ignored. For example the report included a set of interviews with zero-hour workers; one employee from McDonald’s eloquently outlined the case against zero-hours contracts. But this interview would have been better understood if the legal position explained. The  McDonalds employee was  critical of the company and the BBC aired a statement from McDonald`s justifying zero-hours contracts in much the same way that ATL did.

Both McDonald`s and ATL highlighted the need to have a flexible workforce and the benefits such an arrangement can have for both the company and the employee. However, McDonalds are not a trade union affiliated to the TUC and have not (unlike ATL) campaigned against zero-hours contracts in the workplace. ATL, as a campaigning union affiliated to the TUC must be judged by a higher standard than a fast food outlet.

Newsnight concluded with a discussion between Nadhim Zahawi MP (Conservative) and a representative from the TUC Sarah Veale. Mr Zahawi MP appeared less than enthusiastic about zero-hours contracts, his comments hardly an overwhelming endorsement:

There is obviously a problem a good zero-hours contract can work for the people who want that flexibility….I don’t think it is a very imaginative way to aid a flexible labour market.

Sarah Veale did not distinguish between good or bad zero-hours contracts her opposition was total:

Unemployment is very high in this country and the trouble is when unemployment is high and we have seen this in the past, employers use this as a licence to exploit. They can get people to work on these dreadful contracts where people are desperate. But you can guarantee that as the economy picks up and employment starts to grow again that people will walk out of these jobs and that is not very good for the companies that use these contracts because they want to have a productive labour market. They will have people wanting to disappear the minute something better comes up. It is hard to believe that McDonalds is not worried about the reputational damage this must be doing to them.

Legal Eagle is hugely sympathetic with this analysis, as previous articles indicate. However, it seems clear that the TUC and ATL should get together to discuss this matter. The TUC should explain why an affiliated union is recruiting and employing staff on “dreadful contracts”. If the TUC think zero-hours contracts have damaged the reputation of McDonalds, one wonders what they think it has done their own reputation given that the TUC website recently advertised for staff under zero-hours contracts.

ATL posted a statement on this website justifying the employment of workers on zero-hours contracts acting on advice they received from HMRC. I asked ATL for a clarification on this but none was provided. This justification does not sit easily with the excellent commentary by Vidhya Alakenson which again featured on `Newsnight`:

There is also an hour’s rule related to working tax credit. So for the single parents its 16hrs a week and for couples 24hrs a week but if you don’t know how many hours you are going to get to work that week, it’s very hard to reach that hours hour`s rule and how are you going to be able to keep up your tax credits?

Finally, the other issue is that you have to keep HMRC informed all of the time of your changing hours because the last thing that you want as a parent on a low income is to get a bill at the end of the year that you cannot afford to pay back. Because you have actually received too many tax credits from HMRC because you have worked few hours than they thought you were working because your hours keep changing all the time so it is a difficult balancing act.

One wonders have ATL pointed out these potential difficulties to their new employees? Legal Eagle will keep you posted on this issue. And remember if you have been employed by ATL perhaps you will tell us all about the good, the bad and ATL zero hour’s contracts.

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