Zero hours: zero news

Slave labour
‘SLAVE LABOUR’ says the Argus, quoting Green councillor Alex Phillips
Despite the general agreement in Brighton & Hove that the Argus newspaper is no friend of the Green Party, and despite my position as chair of the city’s Greens, I generally bite my tongue about individual articles I may dispute, in the interests of party-press relations.

However, Monday’s Argus front page is one which goes too far in presenting invention as fact, creating a story from thin air and then using it to paint the Green-led council in a bad light.

Under the screaming front page headline “SLAVE LABOUR” in its print version and “One thousand Brighton and Hove City Council workers on ‘slave labour contracts'” in its online version, the Argus claims that “Hundreds of public sector workers are employed under zero hour contracts – only under a different name” and goes on to say “Green councillor Alex Phillips described the practice as ‘modern-day slave labour’” and “Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: ‘These contracts have no place in the 21st century and should be banned.’

Well, here’s the truth.

(1) Brighton & Hove City Council does not employ workers on zero hours contracts and (2) neither Alex Phillips nor Caroline Lucas has made any negative comment about the council’s employment practices in this regard.

Caroline Lucas and the other local Green Party parliamentary candidates have, quite rightly, condemned zero hours contracts, as has Alex Phillips and as do I. Zero hours contracts – in which employees are given no guaranteed hours of paid work but are unable to take other jobs while on call – are morally repugnant and should be banned.

But Brighton & Hove City Council does not use zero hours contracts for its employees. So for the newspaper to shoehorn the Green condemnation of zero hours into an apparent condemnation of the council’s employment practices is, at best, unworthy of a newspaper that asks its readers to trust the news it doles out six days a week.

For the record, B&H City Council does employ casual workers but this type of employment is a very long way from the “zero hours” practices recently raised in Westminster and the national press. Casual work – a close relation of freelance work – is recognised in employment law and it’s fully accepted by trade unions as a legitimate employment practice. Almost every sector offers casual work to cover seasonal variations and peaks of demand and, as long as it’s not abused, it’s a perfectly legitimate way of employing people. Unlike zero hours employees, casual workers can have as many jobs on the go as they like and can accept or refuse work, usually shifts, as they wish. My son, for example, works for three different pub chains and takes or turns down shifts from whichever, as suits his needs.

It is absolutely right that the press should hold politicians and civil servants to account. But, for heaven’s sake, hold them to account for genuine wrongdoings and failings
A zero hours employee, by contrast, is locked into one employer. They are required to be on call and to attend if called but are not paid to be on call. This means they can’t take on another job to fill their on-call time, lest it prevent them coming in, and usually their contract forbids this. Some zero hours employees can go days and weeks between paid shifts and so the sheer existence of the contract can be a cause of great poverty.

B&H City Council not only doesn’t use the practice of zero hours but, under the Green administration, it’s also a particularly good employer of its casual staff. They are all entitled to the Living Wage (currently £7.45 an hour), introduced by the Greens, so it’s wrong to say they’re on minimum wage. In addition, they are entitled to annual leave, sickness pay and maternity pay and may join the Local Government Pension Scheme.

It is absolutely right that the press should hold politicians and civil servants to account. That’s a primary function of responsible media and sometimes the Argus does it very well. But, for heaven’s sake, hold them to account for genuine wrongdoings and failings, not for stories concocted in the newsroom on a slow news day in the middle the summer silly season.

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