Rhys McCarthy, Unite national officer for food, drink and tobacco, told FoodManufacture.co.uk zero-hour contracts were becoming most widespread in the foodservice sector, among companies such as Greene King and Compass Group.
However, there were signs they were also on the rise in food and drink manufacturing, he said. “All the evidence is the number of zero-hour workers is high among young workers and women and they tend to be in types of jobs that are low down in the pecking order.”
‘Exploit and undermine’
While not illegal, such contracts were being used to “exploit and undermine” the workers themselves, whose contracts had few guarantees, and the permanent workers, who could be undercut by such labour, said McCarthy.
The government often claimed workers could reject such work, but if they did so they risked losing unemployment benefits if they could find no alternative employment, he said.
“Zero-hours contracts are being utilised to avoid paying holiday pay, sick pay and national insurance, going back to the early Twentieth Century model of dock workers lining up to take jobs. Unite want to make these practices unlawful.”
A row recently erupted between Bakers Food & Allied Workers' Union (BFAWU) members at Premier Foods’ Hovis plant bakery in Wigan and management over zero-hours or ‘as and when’ contracts.
After balloting its members, the union scheduled strike action last week in protest over the use of agency workers on zero-hours contracts and low wages to fill gaps left by redundancies.
The BFAWU claimed management was using this to put leverage on permanent employees to work longer hours for less pay.
Premier Foods claimed it had not brought in zero-hours staff especially, beyond its usual practise to cover sudden peaks in demand, and stressed it did not employ such workers — they were employed by agencies.