Union slams food industry zero-hours contracts

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

McCarthy claims there are signs of a rising incidence of zero-hours contracts in the food industry
McCarthy claims there are signs of a rising incidence of zero-hours contracts in the food industry

Related tags Employment

Zero-hours contracts in the food industry are on the rise and unions believe firms are using them to press workers into accepting longer hours and lower pay and avoid employment costs.

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.

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1 comment

Unions about to shoot themselves in the foot

Posted by Robert,

As an owner/manager of a seasonal food business I use zero hours contracts for my packing staff.

This allows me to employ full time people with confidence that, should the season or orders fluctuate for reasons beyond my control, gives me the flexibility to react accordingly with my permanent workforce - who fully understand the issue and will work more hours in the summer and at Christmas and less in the winter.

We work very hard to remain busy year round as this is good for everybody, but with seasonal peaks and troughs it is impossible to achieve.

Should I be forced to guarantee hours then I would have to reduce my permanent workforce and resort to agency workers, as I could not be saddled with the risk of going out of business should the crop or orders fail - or should there be an economic downturn.

This is not to mention the inflationary pressure this places on our marginal industry.

This is similar in hospitality, construction and food manufacture.

The unions should ask themselves which scenario they prefer? Stable, permanent and flexible jobs or everyone working for an agency.

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