I remember grandfathers and other relatives standing along the quay side every morning waiting to be offered a couple of hours work. Many of these men were paid in pubs along the quays. There are elements of that situation to be found in zero hour and low hour contracts. The vast majority of employees need income certainty and there is absolutely no certainty with zero hour and low hour contracts. The big companies are getting away with far more than they should in this regard.
In recent times we see that temporary contracts are increasing as a means for employers to take advantage of the economic downturn and the fact that it is an employers market. Also temporary contract employees is another word for an employee on probation which means that the employer has the right to end a contract without the protocols of unfair dismissal and legal guaranties that a permanent employee would be entitled to. Big corporations in particular take advantage of temporary contracts and it is proven that this style of employment along with the terrible conditions of zero hour contracts are on the rise. It is clear they are simply a means for the employer to manipulate working numbers and conditions to suit the circumstances of the day.
Recently I raised very serious concerns about the low-paid. I pointed out that 25% of employees, some 345,000 people in the labour force, were earning an hourly rate less than the living wage threshold of €11.45. A very significant number of these low-paid workers – 60% – are women. While the cut in the minimum wage has been reversed, the point I made then was that while everybody wanted to see people coming off the live register and moving into employment, that employment had to allow them to live in dignity. Otherwise, it is distorting the progress made on the live register. We have the irony of employed people struggling to pay bills and left with no disposable income when these bills are paid. This has a knock-on effect on the wider economy.
Yesterday I raised the issue of temporary contracts and their continuous use in certain sectors. It is obvious that there are jobs available in these areas, but there is also the continuous use of temporary contracts, with few or no rights for workers. There are unintended consequences such as people on these contracts not able to take part in active sports etc. because of the fear of an accident. If a permanent employee injures themselves they would be entitled to certified sick leave through the employer. If you are a temporary contract employee, and you injure yourself, you would be out of work without any compensation.
There are also many things the Government can do to deal with the uncertainty of zero hour contracts. Bills have to be paid all year round, not depending on the working conditions and availability of staff at different times of the year. A mother who is on a zero hour contract working on average 10 hours a week through September to May, then when June arrives the student staff that are finished their college term are available for full time hours and given that they are young and single and thus more flexible the employer could favour them for the summer months and thus the mother who has worked on average 10 hours a week throughout the year is cut to 2 or maybe 0 hours with absolutely no comeback to the employer and not entitled contractually to any hours. This is an example of how unfair a zero hour contract can be. One major step would be to increase the current 25% non-call in compensation to 50% which in turn could mean that an employer would feel it more suitable to offer a standard contract to an employee rather then leave them in limbo waiting to be called in.
I acknowledge the establishment of the Low Pay Commission. Unfortunately, before it reports, very vulnerable workers will continue to struggle. I am of the view that the contracts on which they find themselves are nasty remnants of the recession. I made the point in the Dáil that if, as the Government states, the recession is over then these contracts should be eliminated as well.