|Esther Lynch of ICTU|
Fast-food restaurant giants McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza have admitted they are among a number of outlets who employ the majority of their non-managerial staff — the people who serve you at the counter or clean up after you — on what are known as ‘zero-hour contracts’. In McDonald’s it’s 9 out of 10 people. Burger King are also using the contracts north of the Border but have not confirmed if they are in use in the South.
The news follows uproar in Britain where up to 180,000 employees are said to be used and abused in this way. In the Irish state these contracts are also legal but with some protections that do not exist in Britain or the Six Counties.
In the 26 Counties, zero-hour employees are required to be available for work for an agreed number of hours per week or when required. Under Irish law, if the employee gets no work in a certain week, then they should be compensated by either 25% of the possible available hours or for 15 hours, whichever is less. If the employee got some work, they should be compensated to bring them up to 25% of the possible available hours.
A major factor is that casual employees are not entitled to the compensation as they are not covered under the Organisation of Working Time Act. This leaves the system open to abuse as there is no strict definition of what a casual employee actually is.
In the North, employees have even less protection as they are not entitled to any compensation if no work is offerred.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Legal and Social Affairs Officer, Esther Lynch, told An Phoblacht:
“A bad idea spreads very quickly.”
Esther says the uncertainty as to whether employees will have any work in a particular week makes it difficult for staff to organise their lives, partcularly if they have a family or children.
“The employee could get a text message saying ‘You’re working tomorrow’ and then the person might think they have a whole day’s work but then find out they didn’t. If the employer says ‘Jump’ you have to reply ‘How high?’ No matter what task or what time, the employer has them over a barrel.”
All the power is held by the management.
“For workers with children it’s very difficult to organise childcare at such short notice,” Esther points out. “It’s hard to have two jobs as you don’t know when you are working. It makes it very difficult to apply for another job because you don’t know if you are going to be able to turn up for the interview or not. You can be sure the type of employer who employs you on that kind of contract isn’t interested in helping you find other work. So there’s a lot of unfairness.”
She says the power of employers to use offers of work as a tool to reward or reprimand their staff can cultivate a climate of fear. This also makes it difficult for any employees to take a case.
“What employee in that circumstance is going to put their head above the parapet? Those who join a trade union find themselves without hours.”
The employer won’t dismiss them because then they would find themselves with a complaint but the employer is not breaking any law by reducing the number of hours offered.
Esther says many often assume that it is just students and young people on these contracts. That’s not the case.
“A lot of people take these kind of contracts in the hope that they’re made permanent. And that will be held out as a carrot. It won’t be explicitly said but people will know that the only ones who get full-time work will be those who go along with this type of contract.”
Esther adds that it is time for Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton TD to publish the report on the reform of the Joint Labour Committees (JLCs) which he has been sitting on since receiving it from the Labour Court in April.
The number of people employed on zero-hour contracts has increased since the removal of the JLCs. When they are back up and running they may be able to offer guidance on the position of casual workers.
“It’s another one of these circumstances where you have rights in theory but not in practice,” says Esther. “During the boom times people could say ‘If you don’t treat me right I’m gonna leave.’ The crisis means people can’t walk into another job. So it’s only now that people are realising just how flimsy the protections are, particularly if you don’t have a union.”
This article first appeared in the September 2013 edition of An Phoblacht newspaper