Tag Archives: Employment Relations

Brexit and worker’s rights: should workers and trade unions be concerned?

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Dr Liz Oliver

Brexit creates uncertainty for important employment rights. Very many of the employment rights that have come to be expected as part of an employment relationship in the UK derive from EU law. Should the UK no longer be obliged to maintain these as part of its obligations under whatever relationship it has to the EU, then their future becomes much less certain. Could, on the other hand, Brexit create an opportunity for employment rights? An opportunity to re-think the way that employment law and other forms of regulation (such as collective bargaining) work together in a way that suits the economy in UK and responds to the national and global challenges that workers face? The answer to that question very much depends on the opportunity for an open and informed democratic debate. Whilst the Government is making assurances about protecting the workers’ rights, the mechanism by which it is doing this – ‘a Great Repeal Bill’ – potentially contains a back door through which such provisions could be readily amended or repealed without the full scrutiny of Parliament. Unfortunately therefore both workers and trade unions are right to be concerned.

What is at stake?

The impact of EU law on employment in the UK reaches far and wide, encompassing equality legislation; pregnancy; maternity and parental leave; paid holiday; employee rights in the context of insolvency; collective consultation in the context of redundancy to name but a few areas. Others have mapped this in great detail.

The impact of Brexit on this body of workers’ rights depends on two main contingencies;

  • the nature of the future relationship with the EU and
  • the political climate with regard to employment regulation at national level

It seems unlikely that the UK’s future relationship with the EU will entail obligations in the area of employment and other social law but much remains to be seen. As details of the Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy emerge in particular the intention to leave the single market and customs union and not to contemplate existing models such as ‘the Norway option’ which would entail continued membership of the European Economic Area. It becomes clearer that the overriding goal is for the UK’s future relationship with the EU to entail minimal to non-existent obligations. Nevertheless much remains to be seen. The Prime Minister’s speech and the subsequent white paper set out her unilateral intentions ahead of the negotiation with the other Member States of the EU. As such, it is aspirational and projects an intention for Theresa May to have her cake and eat it too. Any concessions around key objectives such as the “greatest possible access” to the single market and “tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade there to be as frictionless as possible” will come with considerable strings attached.

In terms of the political climate with regard to employment regulation, the picture here is mixed. The current Government has not taken the overtly deregulatory stance of the Coalition Government or previous Conservative Government and the Prime Minister and her government have made assurances about protecting workers rights. Nevertheless concrete legal steps to ensure that current standards are maintained are lacking. Of particular significance is the distribution of power between the Executive (Government) and Parliament in decision making in the area of employment law. This important matter will shape extent to which matters of employment law will be opened up to democratic debate.

To what extent will worker’s rights be protected and maintained through the Brexit process and beyond?

The EU law that is relevant to employment takes different forms and takes effect at national level in different ways. Whilst some employment law derived from the EU can be found in Acts of Parliament (primary law) other provisions have been transposed using secondary legislation based on the European Communities Act 1972 and others still take effect automatically because they are directly applicable (The European Communities Act 1972 allows such provisions to have effect without further enactment).

Brexit poses two types of issues 1) technical issues about the form and function of different provisions and 2) issues of substance about what role employment law should take within the UK.  As the discussion below will show. The two issues interrelate.

Following the referendum result some called for a repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 (in order to ‘undo’ EU law), but it was clear that that position would be unworkable. The Prime Minister has instead announced a bridging mechanism in the form of a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ which will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and transpose existing EU law into national law. The Government’s white paper on the UK’s exit from the EU contains assurances about worker’s rights:

“The Great Repeal Bill will maintain the protections and standards that benefit workers. Moreover, this Government has committed not only to safeguard the rights of workers set out in European legislation, but to enhance them”

On the one hand this looks like a sensible idea. It maintains legal certainly and potentially opens up a space to review what provisions to keep and whether or how to change or remove them. But an important question is who gets to make these decisions. Will it be Parliament or will it be the Government?

Constitutional lawyers have identified the proposed use of enabling provisions within Great Repeal Bill as a stumbling block to achieving enhanced Parliamentary sovereignty. The Department for Exiting the European Union’s announcement states “The Repeal Bill will include powers for ministers to make some changes by secondary legislation, giving the Government the flexibility to take account of the negotiations with the EU as they proceed.” Such enabling provisions may give ministers the power to amend or repeal former EU law based on the Great Repeal Act using ‘light touch’ secondary legislation. Of particular concern are so called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses which would allow for the repeal of primary law without further Parliamentary scrutiny, these could open up employment law that is already enacted by Acts of Parliament to amendment or repeal. It raises concerns that the ‘back door’ is left open for the Government to make significant changes to employment law without full debate or scrutiny. The scope and exercise of such powers will delineate the potential for Parliamentary (democratic) debate about what employment standards are expected by workers and employers within the UK.

The size and shape of the ‘back door’ is yet to be seen but talking about assurances that the Government has given on worker’s rights one legal expert notes

“There’s a definite “fox in charge of the henhouse” vibe here – quite literally so, if we remind ourselves of cabinet minister Liam Fox’s attitude to EU employment regulation”.

Workers and trade unions are right to be concerned and to seek legal mechanisms to guarantee employment rights.

Attempts to assure worker’s rights

Labour MP Melanie Onn introduced a private members Bill ‘The Workers’ Rights (Maintenance of EU Standards) Bill’ as an attempt to ensure that the current legal regime remains in place, however this was ‘talked out’ of Parliament on Friday (13th January).

Several amendments to the ‘Article 50 Bill’ (European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2016-17) seeking to protect employment law were tabled. These took different forms, some sought to ensure  that the Prime Minister have regard to the public interest in existing social rights and others sought to ensure that current provisions are maintained and that Parliament has full scrutiny of any proposed changes to primary and secondary law. None of these amendments have held.

My view

Whilst some have argued that the removal of key employment protections that derive from EU law would be ‘politically unthinkable’ others argue that it would be ‘naïve’ to assume that any of the rights derived from EU law would be immune from repeal. It is my view is that a government with a deregulatory agenda can make important changes to employment law that are far reaching yet subtle, even where whole-sale deregulation would be politically unworkable (see previous blog post). The use of Henry VIII clauses within the proposed ‘Great Repeal Act’ could facilitate far-reaching changes without commensurate democratic debate. Employment law is complicated stuff, nothing short of a full and open democratic debate can support its appropriate reform. The Brexit domain is a million miles from this.

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Steel in Crisis: Restructuring for People

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Chris McLachlan, Leeds University Business School.

The construction of an industrial strategy for UK steel is essential. Within the debate over this requirement and as part of its development, it is important to have an understanding of what happens at plant level when restructuring and redundancy occur. A plant that is of key focus in the current steel crisis is Tata Steel’s long products site in Scunthorpe. The plant has undergone successive restructuring processes in recent years, with ‘Project Ark’ in 2011, ‘Path to Profit’ in 2013, and now the decision to sell the long products division.

Some 2,600 job losses have been announced over this 4 year period, which leaves the Scunthorpe site with approximately 3,000 employees. Since the divestment decision the security of the entire site has been under threat. The recent announcement of the potential sale of the long products division to UK based investment firm Greybull Capital provides hope for the Scunthorpe site, but for its employees a worrying period of uncertainty remains. This contraction of the UK steel industry workforce has, of course, been in train since the 1980s. Amidst the prevailing industrial context, the recent bout of restructuring is having profoundly negative effects on not only the lives and careers of individuals but also the communities affected by the restructuring. Banners at recent Save Our Steel events in Scunthorpe and Sheffield simply stating ‘HELP OUR TOWN’ (image below) are testament to the extensive impact of the current steel crisis. How might firms maintain their social responsibility to workers and communities in the face of these job cuts? Indeed, do organisations have a social responsibility for their employees?

Tata Steel Demo

At Scunthorpe, a notable step in attempting to develop a socially responsible approach to restructuring was the Project Ark process in 2011. This process was framed around a broader commercial strategy that reduced the volume of steel produced at the site, and further justified through a focus on producing higher quality, higher value added steel products along with a plan of investment in skills and training that sought to create a more flexible workforce. The consequence of this, however, was the announcement of 1200 job losses due the mothballing of the bloom and billet mill. The Project Ark strategy was a critical moment between Tata and the affiliated trade unions, as the job losses were essentially agreed by both parties to on the promise of future investment in skills and the broader commercial plan that promised to ensure the survival of the plant. Evidently, these promises were not upheld by Tata. At Save Our Steel rallies, senior union officials and MPs continue to bemoan the Project Ark process, with the subsequent Path to Profit process (500 job losses announced) perceived as a residual restructuring from the failures of Project Ark. Meanwhile, the HR team were rewarded for their efforts in managing the job losses, receiving an internal CEO award for their efforts in conducting a socially responsible restructuring process. Therefore, it is clear that Tata appreciate the need – the requirement, even – to ensure their restructuring practices are conducted in this way, with the process also being used as benchmark across the rest of their UK operations.

Tata claims a social responsibility to ameliorate the impact of these job losses for affected individuals and the local community. This commitment is laid out in its most recent Annual Report (2014-15). The socially responsible restructuring processes at Tata Steel UK have typically been characterised and managed through the avoidance of ‘hard’ (compulsory) redundancies – through redeployment practices such as cross-matching affected individuals in vacant positions internally – a close working relationship with the trade unions, and the provision of basic employability support in CV writing and interview training for those made redundant. As long as people who wish to leave do so voluntarily, this allows those wishing to remain to take up alternative employment within the organisation. The joint management-union goal of plant survival, has always been the key rationale underlying these processes. Amidst the prevailing industrial context the threat of restructuring within Tata seems more imminent than ever. The announcement of more job losses (18.1.16) at Tata UK’s Port Talbot site is clear evidence of this. In this context, the sustainability of this socially responsible approach to restructuring is subject to increasing amounts of pressure. The coming negotiations between Tata and its trades unions will prove historically significant not only for the fate of the Scunthorpe site but for the UK steel production more broadly. The feet of steel workers are being held firmly to the blast furnace fire.

Up to £6m has been pledged by UK Steel Enterprise (a CSR-based subsidiary of Tata that supports steel areas affected by restructuring) and the government to aid regeneration and job creation in Scunthorpe, along with another £3m aimed at funding retraining for affected individuals. Supportive measures like this, however important and in real terms quite limited, become devalued when CEO of Tata Steel Europe Karl Koehler claims that the long products division has no future beyond the end of the financial year. Moves like this further disillusion the workforce, creating a reluctance to engage with the range of support measures on offer. Additionally, recent changes in organisational structure in order to prepare the plant for being a ‘standalone’ business, then the subsequent decision to sell the division off, has put further pressure on the Scunthorpe plant to control costs and hence pressure on jobs. Given that previous restructuring processes have been necessarily framed around the survival of the plant, the imminent threats that these events pose bring into question any notion of a socially responsible approach. What is crucial in the negotiations around restructuring, job losses and sell off, is for Tata to continue to engage with trade unions in order to ameliorate, and where possible limit, the amount of job losses so as to ensure the process is conducted in a socially responsible fashion.

Chris McLachlan is a PhD student at Leeds University Business School and a member of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change.

 

 

 

How can local authorities deliver better skills and employment support?

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Dr Jo Ingold, Leeds University Business School

On the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, a diverse range of local authority Chief Executives from across the UK gathered in Harrogate for a Roundtable event ‘Can local government help deliver the welfare agenda?’ which ran alongside the Local Government Association Conference. In a short space of time we covered a range of issues. In this blog, I summarise the main issues that were debated, focusing on skills, the challenges of provision of employment support services, and the nature of effective evaluation.

Unsurprisingly skills came up as a key problem, including skills mismatches within local areas, both in relation to moving the unemployed into work and also with regard to employee retention and progression. One example given was of money being made available for skills training in particular geographical areas without incorporating intelligence about the jobs which are likely to be available in local and regional labour markets in future. Such skills mismatch problems are symptomatic of a broader fragmented landscape of skills and employment at the Whitehall level. The agendas of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills appear radically different in this area. The DWP seems more focused on the quickest way into work (in line with ongoing welfare reforms), rather than long-term skills development. In the context of potential (and partial, rather than total) devolution this fragmentation of the provision of social security and skills and employment support is likely to become even more messy, with accompanying accountability issues. Local Enterprise Partnerships (and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland) have a key role to play here but to date it’s not clear how far they are fulfilling this.

Also apparent from the discussion at the Roundtable was that amongst the local authority areas represented – from the urban to the rural and coastal – most were involved in delivering a range of employment support initiatives for a diverse range of groups outside the labour market, particularly those with multiple barriers to work. In some areas such projects were in response to perceived gaps in central government-commissioned Work Programme provision and in other areas they ran alongside the Work Programme. However, very little mention was made of partnerships with Work Programme providers. This raises two critical points.

Firstly, it seems sensible (and more cost-effective) not to duplicate existing – and, importantly, effective – provision. This will become even more crucial in the context of potential devolution settlements. Both local authorities and providers contracted to DWP to delivery employment services (alongside LEPs and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland) need to think more creatively about how to work together more effectively in the next Work Programme contract (from 2017). This is crucial for the provision of more effective employment support for the unemployed and also to provide a more coherent service for employers.

Secondly, with much good work going on, a key question is how to capture what is happening and to rigorously and robustly evaluate it. A few of the projects mentioned around the table were being evaluated but in the context of ongoing and severe local authority budget cuts, there is a need to think more creatively about how local authorities, organisations delivering employment and skills support and universities can work together to evaluate what works for whom and in what contexts (circumstances, labour markets). The black box approach of the Work Programme (freeing employment services up from government prescription) is a promising idea in principle. However, four years on from the introduction of the Work Programme it is still unclear as to whether and how evidence about what works is being harnessed and, importantly, disseminated across all interested organisations. As Julia Salado-Rasmussen argues in her recent CERIC blog, establishing causal links between active labour market interventions and outcomes can be difficult. The potential of more localised (and personalised) provision provides an opportunity for fine-grained and meaningful evaluation that can be better translated into future policy. However, one of the shortcomings of the competitive Work Programme model (and the broader commissioning of employment services) is that programme data can often be protected as ‘commercial in confidence’. It is crucial that such evidence is shared and used for wider benefit in order to inform future interventions to assist the unemployed into work.

Dr Jo Ingold is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy at Leeds University Business School, UK and is currently researching employer engagement in welfare to work programmes: http://business.leeds.ac.uk/research-and-innovation/research-projects/how-do-inter-organisational-relations-affect-employer-engagement-uk-and-denmark/

How do we know what works in active labour market policies?

Julia Salado-Rasmussen WEB

Julia Salado-Rasmussen is a Doctoral Researcher, Centre for Labour Market Research (CARMA) & Research Centre for Evaluation (FCE), Aalborg University, Denmark and was a Visiting Researcher at CERIC in May 2015.

jsr@dps.aau.dk
@juliasalado

Active labour market policies (ALMPs) continue to be a hot topic in Danish politics, as well as in many other countries. Despite a substantial amount of resources spent on ALMPs there is still a lack of results, especially when it comes to the disadvantaged unemployed. The disadvantaged unemployed have problems besides being without a job (e.g. health, economic or social problems) and are often long-term unemployed. This blog examines the results of ALMPs and discusses the challenges of evaluating ALMPs. I also present my PhD research design, which sets out how I will evaluate ALMPs by using realistic evaluation techniques.

Across OECD countries, Denmark has the highest level of public expenditure on ALMPs. Denmark spent 2.3 per cent of GDP on ALMPs in 2011. In comparison, the second biggest spender is Belgium (spending 1.6 per cent of GDP), followed by the Netherlands and Sweden (both spending 1.1 per cent of GDP in 2011). The total amount spent on ALMPs in Denmark was around DKK 13.5 billion in 2013 (around £1.3 billion). It has been pointed out in several papers that the practice of evaluating ALMPs is much less developed in Europe than in the United States. In light of the relatively high amounts spent on ALMPs in Denmark, and in Europe in general, compared to the US, this seems rather paradoxical.

Evaluations of ALMPs in Denmark show little consensus about what approaches seem to work. There is particular lack of knowledge about the disadvantaged unemployed as a group, something which is mirrored in the wider international literature. The studies undertaken in Denmark indicate that there is an overall positive effect of ALMPs. However, a number of programmes have no effects, or have directly negative effects during recessionary periods. The Danish Economic Council goes as far as to conclude that all ALMPs prolong unemployment under recession due to ‘locking-in effects’. Locking-in effects mean that in the period when the unemployed participate in a programme, they may seek jobs less actively, because they want to complete the programme they are attending or because they have less time to search for a job. Nonetheless it seems that programmes that take place at real companies, using private wage-subsidies and internships (virksomhedspraktik), work for the disadvantaged unemployed as well as for other groups. Employers receive up to 50 per cent of wage costs when they hire an unemployed worker via the wage-subsidy scheme, and they get the labour for free when they hire an unemployed worker via an internship, since the unemployed person continues to receive their income through benefits from the Jobcentre.

Research shows that results depend on the state of the economy (boom or recession), the target group, the area of implementation and also, crucially, the evaluation method and design (e.g. whether the ‘motivation effect’, which refers to the pattern of increased job search activity and employment just before the unemployed are forced into a programme), is included or excluded). Furthermore there is a tendency to rank evaluations in a hierarchy, where studies based on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the ’gold standard’. The uncompromising and typically narrow focus of studies based on RCTs means that evaluations based on other methods are often excluded from meta-analyses, thus leaving out potentially fruitful knowledge. RCTs are suitable for explaining whether an intervention leads to an outcome or not, but typically cannot explain the causal relations between interventions and outcomes, which then become a “black box”. Why did the intervention work and how? Moreover, to make experimental studies possible programmes are often pooled into larger categories, thus obscuring the nuances between different programmes. All these circumstances make it hard to transfer the results into political action.

The black box approach makes it hard to replicate successful programmes. Since there is limited evidence on why the programme works, programmes which seem to work may be copied in their entirety to ensure no essential parts are left out, which in practice can be difficult. This issue is especially interesting in a British context, and the current Work Programme’s ‘black box’ commissioning approach, where providers can personalize the support for each individual and are paid by results. At some point one would expect that politicians would be interested in knowing what the high-performing providers which help more unemployed people into sustained work do and what types of programmes they offer.

In my PhD project I advocate for a more open-minded approach to evaluating ALMPs. The project applies realistic evaluation and evaluates a number of selected programmes directed towards the disadvantaged unemployed. Working within the framework of realistic evaluation, the research project incorporates a mixed-method approach that allows for an opening of the ’black-box’ and thus deals not only with ‘what works’ but also for whom, why and in what context. As Ray Pawson writes in his latest book from 2013: “Why does a programme work in Wigan on a wet Wednesday and why does it fail in Frinton on a foggy Friday?”

The research design is based on qualitative data including interviews with the unemployed and practitioners and quantitative data on employment from the DREAM-register system held by the Danish Ministry of Employment. The aim is to focus on the underlying programme theory (assumptions) about how ALMPs work. What mechanisms make the programme work? When the programme theory is the unit of analysis, instead of the active labour market programme as  such, it becomes easier to generate learning from one programme to another. Thus the same programme theory often repeats itself across different types of active labour market programmes and national settings. By using realistic evaluation it will hopefully be possible to get a deeper understanding of what works in ALMPs.

The growing problem of zero hours contracts in the UK

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Chris Forde
Chris Forde is Professor of Employment Studies at CERIC.

@CERIC_LUBS

In May, Vince Cable announced a review of zero hours contracts, amidst concerns that such contracts may be ‘abusing workers at the margins of the labour market’. Under zero hours contracts, workers agree to be available as and when required, but they have no guaranteed hours or times of work.  In healthcare, hospitality, and education, such ‘on-call’ workers are increasingly commonplace, cleaning hotel rooms, waiting in restaurants, or providing care to people at home. A number of reports have highlighted the precarious nature of many zero hours contracts, characterised by low pay, few employment rights, and little opportunity for progression.

Getting a handle on the numbers engaged in zero hours contracts has proved difficult. A Resolution Foundation report, using Labour Force Survey data, puts the number of workers on zero hours contracts at 200,000, although the authors recognise that this is likely to be an underestimate.  This would certainly seem to be backed up by figures cited last week by Norman Lamb, the Care and Support Minister who stated in Parliament that in social care alone, 300,000 workers – one fifth of the workforce – were employed on zero hours contracts. Why have they have become so commonplace in some sectors, and what are the experiences of those workers at the sharp end of these contracts?

In our recent research at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds, Ioulia Bessa, Sian Moore, Mark Stuart and I have been able to look at the realities of zero hours contracting in the domiciliary care sector. Our study for the Low Pay Commission examined contracts, hours of work and pay for workers who provide care for clients in their own homes. We have looked at pay levels in this sector in a previous blog, but what about the prevalence of zero hours?  One of the most striking findings from our analysis of a national dataset on work and employment in social care was that zero hours contracts have become the norm for domiciliary care workers over the last few years. Between 2009 and 2012, 56% of domiciliary care workers were employed on zero hours contracts. As figure 1 below shows, in the private sector, it is rare to see a care worker on a standard employment contract: in 2012, a staggering 4 in 5 domiciliary care workers was on a zero-hours contract. Our analysis suggests that there were approximately 100,000 domiciliary care workers in total on zero hours contracts in 2012.¹

Figure 1: Proportions of Domiciliary Care Workers on zero-hours contracts, 2009-2012, National Minimum Data Set for Social Care.

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Source: Bessa, Forde, Moore and Stuart (2013) Report for Low Pay Commission

Our case studies showed that it was changes in the commissioning process and well-documented falls in ‘block contracts’ (where providers are given guaranteed numbers of hours of care under local authority contracts) that had driven the rise in zero hours contracting. As a manager from one large national home care provider put it:

‘It would be difficult to not sustain a zero hours contract because  you don’t have any guaranteed or block hour contracts from the local authority, because they’re all commissioned and framework (agreements), there’s no guarantee of business, it’s difficult to guarantee a workforce business or work’ .

Advocates of zero hours contracts point to the flexibility of such arrangements, and the benefits to both employer and worker of adaptable work schedules. To be sure, we found some evidence of workers who valued flexibility over how many hours they worked (in particular those with second jobs, students or those with other commitments). However, the problem is that zero hours contracts remove any element of continuity for workers in the hours they worked from one week to the next. One respondent who had worked as a care worker described how his ‘heart sank every Sunday night’ when he received a work schedule for the coming week from his employer, typically setting out less hours for the worker than they were expecting. Whilst these hours were often topped up by the employer with additional hours during the week, it made planning very difficult. Our case studies also highlighted how working variable hours each week also had implications for the receipt of Statutory Sick Pay, and benefits such as Working Family tax Credits.

Some have called for these contracts to be outlawed, whilst others suggest tighter regulation, and better enforcement of those rights that zero hours contract workers do have. As one commentator has noted, those on zero hour contracts do have a modest advantage over those on casual contracts, in that an employer does have an obligation to provide work to employees on fixed-term contracts over casual workers, if work is available.  The problem is that under zero hours contracts, the risks associated with work not being available are predominantly borne by the worker, .

If we are arguing that commissioning practices in social care are one of the causes of the rise in zero hours in the sector, are there better solutions? Our case studies highlighted how the practice of contracting for hours of care from suppliers (with no specified pay rates or employment conditions that suppliers must adhere to) was a barrier to improving contract arrangements of the care workforce. ‘Fair fee models’, where authorities could give a specified rate for hourly pay and for overheads (with the capacity for increases), or ‘open book’ approaches, where the local authority would pay what a service costs and then allow a certain percentage profit might lead to a reduction in the reliance by employers on zero hours arrangements to maintain margins. However, the dominance of the current commissioning model in social care would seem to suggest that such radical changes are unlikely to happen any time soon.

¹ Our analysis of zero hours in the NMDS-SC dataset in 2012 was primarily concerned with wages and hours worked, and we focused on the 42,908 zero hours contract workers who provided information on their contracted hours and additional hours. We excluded from the analysis of those workers who indicated that their contracted hours were zero, but who provided no information on actual hours worked in a given week. These involved the exclusion of 60% of cases from the dataset. Including these workers in the count of zero hours contracts would give the higher count of 100,000 reported above.

Corner Mothers: Argentine sex workers using street art

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Dr Kate Hardy, CERIC.

On a street corner a woman is pictured with a leg leaning against the wall, her body adorned in the classic signifiers of sex work – a short dress and impossibly high heels. With one arm raised above her head, the other stretches out laconically to the side. At first sight this is just another stereotypical image of street prostitution, highly sexualized images which rarely reflect its reality. On second sight, the hand that stretches out, stretches around the corner, where it meets the small hand of a young girl, in school uniform, accompanied by a younger boy, both with backpacks slung over their shoulders. Suddenly the image transforms to see that this is, in fact, a mother walking her children to school.

This is one image from the new campaign ‘Mamas de la Esquina’ (Corner Mothers) being led by AMMAR, the sex workers’ union of Argentina. The street art is being used to challenge images of sex workers and to emphasise the fact that 86% of sex workers are Mothers. It is part of a broader campaign for decriminalization in the country, in which AMMAR have already won the repeal of laws in two provinces. The argument goes that as women sell sex in order to support their families, just like any other worker, they therefore deserve protection and from the exploitation and police violence they face every day.

As informal workers, positioned outside the norms and institutions of traditional labour relations, AMMAR and other sex workers’ organisations often have to use innovative means to campaign for better working conditions in their industry. Where there are no employers and the workplace is the public space of the street, improving working conditions frequently relates to demanding protections from the state, namely from displacement and police brutality. Sex workers are routinely bribed by members of the police force and one branch secretary, Sandra Cabrera, was assassinated by a bullet to the neck, after publicly denouncing the role of the police in trafficking and indoor prostitution.

Despite such intense pressure from the police to stop, AMMAR have continued to organize since their inception in 1995. When they first came together, with little political knowledge, they simply asked not to be re-arrested within 24 hours of being released from a cell. Since then, they have established a primary school, a health clinic, won the repeal of laws repressing their work in two provinces and they now have a voice in government bodies, particularly in the arena of HIV prevention. Elena Reynaga, President of AMMAR, who was illiterate when she founded the organization, is now an influential member of the UN Rapporteur on HIV/AIDS.

One challenge that remains is changing public perceptions of the reasons that the sex industry exists and why women (as well as men and transgender people) choose to work in it. By emphasizing the socially reproductive work it supports, AMMAR hope that it will be recognized that in a context in which all but the independently wealthy must sell their labour for money, the reasons for participation in the sex industry are simply the same as that sold anywhere else. Challenging this stigma and educating people about the roots of labour in the sex industry is an important battle, not only to transform the material conditions of sex workers lives, but also for creating conditions in which women are more free to choose whether or not they enter the sex – or another – industry.

Kate Hardy wrote her doctoral thesis ‘Proletarian of the night: sex worker organizing in Argentina’ on AMMAR and has published work on the organization in a number of books and journals

Government rhetoric is likely to turn off business and undermine a flagship policy

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Dr Jo Ingold

Everyone knows someone who has experienced, or is currently experiencing, job insecurity, unemployment or underemployment. In the past, it was largely those at the lower end of the labour market with low, or no, skills or qualifications who were most likely to find themselves without work. But in the current recession, anyone can be unemployed – whatever their skill or qualification level, whatever job or industry they’re in.

The Government repeatedly claims that they want to help people into work. They argue that their combination of tax and benefits reforms and the expansion of welfare to work programmes are the best ways to do this. They also make little secret of the faith they place in enterprise and the private sector to get the economy moving and to tackle unemployment. As Iain Duncan Smith said in a speech in Madrid in July, 2011: “Government cannot do it all. As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance”.

There can be no doubt that employers are fundamental to the success (or failure) of welfare to work initiatives, such as the Work Programme, introduced in 2011. The Work Programme is the cornerstone of the Coalition Government’s employment policy. Central to its design is a network of mainly private providers, contracted to deliver tailored assistance to get the long-term unemployed back into work.

As the CBI has highlighted, the Work Programme can offer a range of benefits to employers looking to hire, including tailored packages which reduce recruitment costs and on-going support. Recently, here at CERIC, I’ve been researching (1) whether and why employers do or do not recruit from the Work Programme, and (2) how providers can persuade employers to give more job opportunities to the long-term unemployed. In the past year I’ve surveyed employers and interviewed providers and other key stakeholders. This research has highlighted two important barriers to persuading employers to recruit unemployed people. These are employers’ negative perceptions about unemployed people, and their portrayal in the media.

The first barrier is relatively well-known: for example, in a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management a quarter of employers said that they were less likely to recruit people who were long-term unemployed.

Also well-known are the views put forward by some of the media about people claiming benefit. However, the Government itself is also increasingly talking about shirkers, scroungers, welfare dependency and benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. Government ministers present erroneous statistics about unemployment, worklessness and benefit receipt. They also focus on specific, individual and unrepresentative cases. This not only presents an extremely misleading picture. It is potentially sabotaging the delivery of a key government policy, hindering both those searching for work and those at the coalface who are actively involved in assisting them. Kayleigh Garthwaite  highlighted this recently in relation to long-term sick and disabled people.

Those who took part in my research, as well as employer organisations such as the CBI have suggested that the Government should do more to promote the benefits of the Work Programme to employers. Painting those who are unemployed, lone parents or disabled as shirkers is unlikely to address employers’ concerns about hiring people who have been out of work for a long time. On the contrary, it is far more likely to lead to the cementing of any existing perceptions that employers may have: that people on benefit lack motivation, self-discipline or that they are never going to be the most promising candidates for jobs. At a time when finding any work is difficult enough – let alone sufficient, regular work that pays the bills – this seems perverse.

The Government says that they want to move people off benefit and into work. To this end, Ministers and MPs need to be ambassadors for unemployed people. A myriad of evidence over the years makes it clear that very few people actually want to live on benefit. Most people who are unemployed want to work. One thing that is unlikely to be effective in helping them into work is portraying unemployed people as somehow ‘deficient’, reinforcing stereotypes based on prejudice, rather than evidence. This is doing unemployed people – and businesses – a severe disservice. Through its rhetoric around benefit receipt and unemployment, the Government is not only kicking people when they’re down. They’re undermining their own policy and potentially wasting large amounts of public money in the process.

Dr Jo Ingold is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at CERIC.