Whilst the joint administration at Southend Borough Council, I would argue, is an unambiguous improvement on the previous, tired, stagnating Conservative administration which until May had run Southend (Or rather, managed its decline -Ed) for some fourteen years, there are sometimes stark reminders that this isn’t a pure Labour administration, and there are some areas on which I would like it to do substantially more.
Yesterday’s piece in the Echo about the use, by the council, of zero-hours contracts, for example. 159 council employees, apparently, are on such contracts, out of a workforce of 1,899. That’s just shy of 8% — The Echo’s maths apparently not being great — which in this blogger’s opinion is a long way from ideal.
Whilst I am not pleased at the widespread use of such potentially-exploitative contracts, I can imagine that taking charge of what has been for nearly a decade and a half a Tory local authority, such legacy issues will pop up. What bothers me more is council leader, and Independent
Party Group councillor for Thorpe, Ron Woodley’s lacklustre response.
In a quote to the paper, Cllr Woodley apparently said,
“Candidates apply for these casual roles in the knowledge of the type of contract on offer and for many, the flexible nature of the work on offer is one of its attractions.“
Which, really, is missing the point.
Now, I don’t damn zero-hours contracts indiscriminately. For some workers, in some circumstances, I know that the can be ideal. I know that many students find that zero-hours work suits them, and does indeed offer flexibility. The problem, though, is that as the law stands these employees are very open to exploitation.
Many such contracts have exclusivity clauses attached. This means that, although they are not guaranteed any work at all from the zero-hours employer, they are not able to seek other employment elsewhere. Such workers are therefore trapped, without any assurance that they will be able to make enough money to get by, whilst remaining constantly at the beck and call of their employers — so desperate that they will jump on any meagre hours offered.
And the benefits system plays a cruel part, too. As a mark of the instrument of punishment and moral superiority over the poor and vulnerable which it has become under Ian Duncan Smith, jobseekers’ allowance can be stopped if claimants do not take an offer of a zero-hours contract. So the DWP is the push over the cliff.
Added to that that zero-hours work is often low-wage (the Echo gives the example of McDonalds) and unglamorous, and you have a tool perfectly set up for those who want cheap labour which has few rights to depend on.
I have no idea whether those 151 employees of Southend are low-waged (I would hope that they are at least paid the living wage), whether their contracts are exclusive, or whether they have been pushed into those roles by the Job Centre Plus. I don’t even know if I can find out, though I will be sending an FOI request on the subject. But Ron Woodley’s apparent obliviousness to the risks attacked to zero-hours contracts is concerning.
I wouldn’t seek to ban zero-hours contracts altogetherr, as they can have legitimate uses. Indeed, Labour policy on them specifically (and rightly) targets the exploitative use of them. But I do think that Southend Council should be leading the way.
The fact that the council leader disagrees only serves to highlight that we still need to be fighting for a majority Labour administration in Southend.