Ed Miliband tackles zero-hours contracts

Ed Miliband Image copyright PA

The zero-hours contract - alongside the payday loan and the bad bank - has gained a kind of totemic significance in the public imagination.

The contracts mean maximum flexibility for the employer and minimum security for the worker - the sense of David being, well, thoroughly crushed by Goliath - undervalued, underpaid and thrown to the wolves when it suits.

It's all pretty fertile territory for the man who's built his economic case around the "cost-of-living crisis". Labour leader Ed Miliband has bemoaned zero-hours contracts in the past - but Newsnight has learned that on Friday he'll attempt to turn words into policy.

Speaking in Scotland - in what's being billed as his first attempt to make his mark on the pro-Union side of the independence debate - he'll offer legislation under a Labour government to stop what he's called an exploitative practice.

He will promise some key measures:

  • Ensuring workers can demand a fixed-hours contract when they've worked regular hours over six months for the same employer
  • That they receive a fixed-hours contract automatically when they've worked regular hours for more than a year - unless they chose to opt out
  • Protection from employers forcing them to be available all hours and insisting they can't work for others or cancelling shifts at short notice - for no money

Mr Miliband will say the key to these policies is that they are UK-wide (a nod, then, to No to Scottish independence), to ensure that the economies both sides of the border don't try to undercut each other in a race to the bottom.

So far so good.

It'll chime with a lot of people pulling pints, stacking shelves, building houses and so on.

But it doesn't take a genius to spot where such a plan might unravel. Who's to stop a boss, for example, offering five months' work instead of six to get around the legislation.

Who's to stop a boss firing a worker just short of a year in, if they suddenly fear a little bit too much commitment coming round the corner?

Labour issue?

Critics also point out that the realities of life for those who work under zero-hours contracts mean few may be willing to stand their ground and fight for their rights.

They often apply to the vulnerable - young workers, first-timers - those generally less likely to flex their muscle against all-powerful boss.

Mr Miliband may be the first to put a legislative pledge in writing - but he's certainly not the first to raise the zero-hours contracts issue.

Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage told the Express he wanted to "tackle" the practice, saying: "I do not believe in banning zero-hours contracts. But I do believe there is a very strong case for expecting large employers to sign up to a tough code of conduct as to how they are applied.

"For instance, if an employee proves reliable enough to be working for a big company for a year or more then there should be an expectation that the company will offer him or her a permanent position."

And this is where the politics gets interesting. Mr Miliband and Mr Farage may be seeking the same kind of voter - badly paid, disenfranchised, frustrated with the perceived big, bad corporate world.

What the other two main parties do in response will be key. Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable has already ruled out a complete ban on the contracts and the Conservatives are unlikely to want to take employers on with this one either.

But payday loans and energy prices - both of which the coalition has acted upon - began as "Labour issues". Mr Miliband's ideas on zero-hours contracts may start by being rubbished and ridiculed. Yet could they also end up influencing his opponents?

See my full report on Newsnight on BBC Two from 22:30 BST on Thursday and on the BBC iPlayer later.