In this earlier post, a friend and I looked into whether the Living Wage (which David Cameron referred to 3 years ago as “the idea whose time has come” and is supported by all the main political parties) was being paid to all workers at DWP’s head office in Leeds. The answer was “no”, with 155 staff being paid below the national Living Wage of £7.45. DWP have subsequently confirmed they take no interest in what the companies they contract pay their staff despite Government Minister Brandon Lewis telling Hilary Benn that “The Government supports the living wage and encourages business to take it up where possible and affordable.” If you’re wondering whether it might not be “possible and affordable” in these cases then remember that a) we’re talking about some of the largest multinational companies in the world with revenues in the £billions, and b) it is cheaper overall to pay staff the Living Wage and make them economically active, as opposed to paying them less than the Living Wage and forcing them to claim top-up benefits.
So what about zero-hours contracts? These contracts are increasingly popular, with 1 million people now employed on them. Employers like them because they cost less and reduce worker rights, but in taking away worker rights they increase worker insecurity and prevent them planning for the future (such as investing in a pension) which leads to an increase in anxiety and a lowering of both job and life satisfaction. These contracts are also shown to impact on the quality of services, such as in the care sector where the contracts lead to high staff turnover rates which negatively impact on the experience of service users who have no continuity in the personnel delivering their care. Zero-hours contracts disproportionately affect women and people from lower socio-economic groups who are more likely to be employed using them. Some further articles of interest: a protest against zero-hours contracts from Harry Leslie Smith here who uses his 90 years of experience to put the contracts into a historical perspective; a summary of research into the effects on workers here; and 38 degrees members campaign against the contracts here.
So what did we find out? DWP advised that in their Leeds head office, 4 staff working for their contractors are on zero-hours contracts: 2 work for G4S, 1 works for Balfour Beatty Workplace (BBW) and 1 works for Compass Group. This may not sound like many staff, but this is a small workforce, and if these ratios are replicated, or are higher, across other Government offices across the UK then this is significant. We might expect the private sector to use any means necessary to cut costs, increase worker insecurity and increase profits, but why would the government use tax payers money to employ people on contracts which damage their health and well-being and cost the tax payer more overall?
In a Guardian article about zero-hours contracts from April this year, G4S, the world’s largest security company with a revenue of £7,501 million, said zero-hours contracts allowed them “to provide additional resilience to forces, and ensure they can respond effectively to peaks and troughs in demand, typically coinciding with major sporting events or music festivals“. The DWP Leeds head office does not interface with the public, holds no major events and has no peaks and troughs. So why use zero-hours contracts? How do the staff on these contracts feel about it?
The staff of Balfour Beatty Workplace, part of Balfour Beatty, a multinational infrastructure group with £10,896 million of revenue, provide post room services to DWP’s Leeds head office. Previous information from DWP suggests the majority of these staff are paid below the Living Wage. One of their small team is on a zero-hours contract. In this article from earlier in the month, Balfour Beatty defended their use of zero-hours contracts by saying, “These contracts offer a flexible way of working which suit some people and we always make it clear when we advertise what the terms of employment will be for these roles.” Yes, they suit some people, but very few – perhaps this is an exception. How does their DWP-funded employee, who is probably also being paid less than the Living Wage, feel about their contract?
Finally, Compass Group (using their alter ego ‘Eurest’ within the DWP Leeds head office) who are the largest contract foodservice company in the world with a revenue of £16.905 billion, provides catering staff to serve DWP’s staff in Leeds. It’s hard to think of any reason why they need to use zero-hours contracts for some of their staff working in an office with a very stable, predictable working environment, but this is not to say there isn’t one, or that the worker is not happy with the arrangement. Based on previous information, the member of staff is likely to be paid less than the Living Wage.
It would be easy to become downhearted by all this. Politicians, including the Prime Minister, have shown they are incapable of delivering the Living Wage which they say they believe in. And now we have the spread of zero-hours contracts which the politicians seem either incapable of understanding the dangers of or are unwilling to speak out about. But there is substantial resistance, such as the 38 degrees campaign which is funding an ex-employee’s court case against Sports Direct and also petitioning Vince Cable to conduct a much more thorough review of zero-hours contracts than he initially proposed. Youth Fight For Jobs have also been campaigning nationally. Our contribution, for now, is to find out what is happening on our doorstep.
To end on a mostly positive note, there are two companies who DWP contract in their Leeds head office who pay their staff above the Living Wage without the use of zero-hours contracts, namely Amaryllis and George S Hall. Mitie don’t use zero-hours contracts, but they do pay many of their staff below the Living Wage.