Women ‘exploited’ by rise of zero hours contracts

THOUSANDS of Scottish women are being “exploited” by the increasing use of zero-hours contracts in the workplace, MSPs have been told.

Female part-time workers and NHS staff are commonly affected by zero hours contracts. Picture: PA

• Scottish women are being “exploited” by hike in zero hours contracts in workplace

• Female NHS and part-time workers most affected by rise of contracts seen as “cheap option” by employers

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Women in part-time and NHS roles are often affected by the deals, which don’t offer any security of working hours. Holyrood’s equal opportunities committee was told yesterday the contracts are simply “cost-cutting” measures and there needs to be a culture change towards proper flexible working for those with family commitments.

The committee was told the law should be overhauled to prevent employers ­avoiding using conventional flexible working arrangements, such as reduced hours or home working.

Nursing leaders also warned the use of zero-hours contracts can be a barrier to promotion.

A damning report this week accused the UK of presiding over a “female unfriendly” labour market. The number of women out of work is rising and predicted to hit a 25-year high, while unemployment among men is falling, according to research from equality campaign group the Fawcett Society.

Under a zero-hours agreement, staff are contracted to an employer, but have no fixed working hours and no guarantee of work in any given week. There are now more than 200,000 such deals in use across the UK.

Eileen Dinning, of trade union Unison, told MSPs: “Flexible work is not about exploitation and frankly that’s what I think zero-hours contracts are about – exploitation. I think they’re seen as a cheap option.

“Whatever kind of flexible contract you are on, you should have a proper contract of employment and be paid a living wage, but you should also have … opportunities in terms of promotion and training.”

Lynn McDowall, of nursing body RCN Scotland, said it had opposed the use of the deals in the NHS. She branded it “cost-cutting at the expense of filling substantive posts”.

She added: “Zero hours contracts are a cop-out. They’re not a substitute for flexible working.”

Workers currently have a right to ask for flexible working, but the system makes it easy for firms to refuse, the committee was told.

Ms Dinning said UK legislation in this area “really does need an overhaul”.

“There’s way too many opt-outs for employers to refuse requests,” she said. “Either they overhaul the existing regulations or they beef them up; you legislate because the voluntary approach isn’t working.”

The committee also heard concerns that flexible working can be a barrier to career advancement and lead to age and gender discrimination.

Ms McDowall said: “You find it as rare as hen’s teeth to find a part-time charge nurse, clinical manager or anyone further up the line … it would be very ­difficult to get a promotion ­unless you were going to work full-time.”