Unite to 'name and shame' zero-hours contract suppliers

Workers at Hovis’ Wigan bakery protested over use of zero-hour contracts for some staff

Trade union Unite plans to name and shame food and drink manufacturers that persist in using zero-hours contracts - comparing the practice to sending children up chimneys.

The union issued the warning this week as workers at a Hovis bakery in Wigan walked out in the first of three scheduled week-long strikes over the use of temporary agency staff on zero-hours contracts.

Hovis owner Premier Foods said it had moved away from using the contracts for its own staff but did not set the terms and conditions for agency workers. After it emerged that six directly employed workers at the site were still on a zero-hours agreement, Premier wrote to them offering to transfer them to full-time contracts.

However, Unite’s national officer for food, drink and tobacco Rhys McCarthy told The Grocer zero-hours contracts were rife within food and drink and often in the largest manufacturers. With widespread use of agencies, some companies did not always know when they had workers on zero-hours deals as these contracts were being regularly transferred under TUPE legislation, he added.

“There is nothing new in zero-hours contracts, but I see this as a lightbulb moment like when we finally realised it wasn’t a good idea to send children up chimneys,” he said. “There is no place in UK plc for this kind of contract and we will name and shame companies that continue to use them.”

McCarthy added that Unite would praise companies that did not use zero-hours deals or who were prepared to stop using them.

Zero-hours deals have been widely criticised in the past month with companies such as Sports Direct, Domino’s Pizza and Burger King all caught up in the row. The contracts are controversial, with unions claiming employers use them to cut wages, avoid holiday pay, pensions or other benefits. One legal employment lawyer said the main issue was that they gave workers little chance of claiming for unfair dismissal.

However, one CEO of a major food manufacturer defended the use of the contracts, claiming they were needed to ensure flexibility of production.

“I would like to believe it works for them as much as us, as we don’t want people working in our factories who feel aggrieved,” he said.

“It’s been going on for years. Our business needs the flexibility. Where you’ve got 124 hours average, if it drops to 90 hours and then surges to 154, what is the optimal number of staff versus agency workers? You can’t employ them all. We want skilled people working flexibly and enjoying it. It’s that simple.”