Laws set to tackle abuse of low-paid workers

Laws set to tackle abuse of low-paid workers

The Government is to crack down on employers’ exploitation of low-paid workers through zero-hour, low-hour and banded hours contracts, writes Stephen Rogers.

Legislation drawn up by the Department of Jobs will all but eradicate zero-hours contracts, require employers to give thousands of workers more certainty over their hours, and make sure pay packets more accurately reflect the actual hours they work.

The new laws are in response to a report by the University of Limerick which studied four sectors for zero-hours contracts — retail, hospitality, education, and health.

UL found that while zero-hours contracts were not extensive here, “if and when” hours were prevalent in the accommodation/food and retail sectors, as well as areas of education and health such as community care work, general practice nursing, third-level lecturing and school substitution.

“If and whens” can offer even less protection to workers than those on zero-hours contracts. Those on zero-hour contracts can get some payment for the hours spent on-call. The “if and whens” get no payment for waiting around.

At present, the law requires 15 terms of employment to be given by employers to employees within two months. The UL study said they should be given to employees on the first day; however, the department has decided that is excessive.

Instead, employees will have to be given five core terms within five days of starting work. As well as the name and address of the employer and the expected duration of the contract, they will have to be told the rate or method of calculating pay and, crucially, what the employer reasonably expects the normal length of the employee’s working day and week to be.

It will be an offence not to provide those terms within one month of the worker starting their job.

Zero-hours contracts will be prohibited “except in cases of genuine casual work or emergency cover or short-term relief for the employer”.

“This proposal is to avoid the contagion of an increase in zero-hours practices in this jurisdiction,” said the department.

The legislation provides for the creation of a new right for a worker, whose contract does not reflect the reality of the hours worked on a consistent basis over a reference period of 18 months, to be placed in a band of hours that better reflects the actual hours worked over that period.

“This will provide greater certainty and a truer reflection of their hours of work and level of earnings, thereby addressing, in particular, difficulties employees may have accessing financial credit, including mortgages,” the department said.

UL had proposed there should be a minimum of three continuous working hours where an employee was required to report for work and, if not, the worker should be paid for the three hours.

The department said the UL recommendation would result in disproportionate benefits for high-paid over low-paid employees and significant costs for employers.

Therefore, it is planning a new minimum floor payment, of three times the national minimum wage or three times the minimum industry rate to compensate workers if they are called in to work but do not receive the expected hours of work.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions described the proposals as “quite positive” as it had been pushing for legal change to counter the downward pressure on standards that had resulted from zero-hour, low-hour and precarious work practices.

“Indeed, such practices were central to a number of high-profile disputes in the retail sector in recent years,” said Ictu general secretary Patricia King.

However, Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations with employers’ group Ibec, said the bill was “crude and disproportionate” and has significant adverse consequences which very few people would want.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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