Highly controversial Zero hours contracts are forcing Scottish workers to turn to food banks and payday lenders, according to a new report from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS).
The report, ‘Working at the Edge‘, found that the inappropriate use of zero hours contracts by unscrupulous employers is exploiting workers and leaving them with “no hours, no pay and no chance”.
Some employers are now using zero hours for the majority of their staff, the report says, with women representing over half of those workers trapped on the controversial contracts. Young people and pensioners are also greatly affected.
Workers are frequently denied equal and fair working rights routinely awarded to part-time and full-time staff. The report warns that some employers are using zero-hours as a tool to easily sack staff.
CAS also warns that the misuse of zero hours by some employers is leading to some workers facing bankruptcy and prosecution over unpaid debts.
The report includes a case study of a CAS client on zero hours who only had three days work in a month and was forced to turn to a food bank to feed themselves. The client received a court summons after they found themselves £1,000 into arrears as a direct result of not being given enough hours work to pay debts.
Another case tells the story of a waitress on zero hours who was facing possible bankruptcy, after stacking up a debt of nearly £5,000 to payday lenders, while they waited for their employer to give them more hours work.
CAS policy manager Keith Dryburgh said:
“Zero hours contracts (ZHCs) are meant to provide flexibility for employers and workers alike. They are not suitable for everyone, but they can be a useful option for some people — as long as the system is applied fairly.
“However, we see growing evidence that the system is in fact being abused by some employers, who are frankly misusing it to exploit their workers.
“It seems that the flexibility in the system often lies with the employer, not with the worker. And too often workers are left with no hours, no pay, no security and no chance.
“There are 1.4 million people on ZHCs across the UK. They tend to be aged under 25 or over 65. Over half of them are women, and the areas they work in are those like catering, tourism, food and care.
“In highlighting these cases we hope to persuade employers that they should do right by their staff, and also to open a dialogue with government about how to improve the system to make sure this kind of exploitation doesn’t occur.
“We make a number of recommendations in the report, and we want to engage with ministers, unions and others to discuss ways to ensure a fair deal for all workers.
“We also want to get the message to any worker who is on a zero hours contract. You have rights, and we can help you to stand up for them.
“If you are unhappy with your contract or unsure of your rights, contact your local CAB and we will help you with free confidential advice.
“Nobody in 2014 should be in a position where they are working but don’t have the security of an actual income.”
The Scottish Government has previously called on the UK Government to crack down on the use of inappropriate zero hours contracts, by ensuring that workers receive compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice.
Commenting on the report from Citizens Advice Scotland, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani said:
“While the UK government is encouraging the use of zero hours contracts, the Scottish Government has been looking at options available to tackle the issue within its current limited powers.
“As employment policy is reserved to Westminster, this is yet another example of how we can do things differently, and better, with independence.
“Zero hours contracts can be beneficial for some but they are not appropriate for everyone – and are more likely to be offered to women, young people and pensioners. And the growth in the inappropriate use of these contracts is clearly cause for real concern.
“The fact that anyone is forced to rely on food banks in a wealthy country like Scotland is nothing less than a scandal – but that people in employment are now struggling to afford the basics like food is simply unbelievable.
“After a Yes vote we can use the powers of independence to make sure that more people feel the benefits of Scotland’s wealth.
“The establishment of a Fair Work Commission and a commitment to raise the minimum wage at least in line with inflation will help us take action on low pay.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 23 July 2014
Employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants in the work-related activity group (WRAG) are being subjected to a massively increased sanctions regime that deliberately targets the most vulnerable. Sanctions, primarily aimed at claimants on the work programme who have mental health conditions or learning difficulties, have quadrupled in the course of a year, even though referrals to the programme have fallen by 43%.
The number of sanctions rose from 1,102 a month in December 2012 to 4,789 a month in December 2013, the most recent date figures are available for.
The vast majority of sanctions are imposed for failing to participate in work-related activity whilst on the work programme, which thousands of ESA claimants are forced to join every month in spite of overwhelming evidence that it does not improve their chances of getting a job.
The massive rise in sanctions, however, cannot be explained by a sudden huge surge in the number of claimants in the WRAG.
In fact, the number of claimants in the WRAG increased by just 21% between November 2012 to November 2013, from 460,160 to 558,960.
Indeed, between August and November 2013 the number of claimants in the WRAG actually fell slightly, from 562,620 to 558,960. Yet the number of claimants sanctioned in this period shot up by a staggering 75% from 2,193 to 3,837.
Nor can the rise in sanctions be explained by a corresponding increase in the numbers of ESA claimants being forced onto the work programme.
In fact, the rate at which ESA claimants get pushed onto the work programme has fallen dramatically over the same period. 8,290 claimant were put onto the work programme in December 2012. This fell to just 4,700 in December 2013, a drop of 43%.
Yet sanctions increased fourfold.
And the main targets of those sanctions are claimants with mental health conditions or learning difficulties. Back in April we pointed out that the proportion of this group receiving a sanction had risen from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009 to a massive 58% by June 2013.
That figure has now increased again to 62% in December 2013, even though claimants with these conditions make up just 50% of the work-related activity group.
Also back in April the DWP told us:
“It’s only right that people should do everything they can to move off benefits and into work if they are able. Sanctions are only used as a last resort and we have robust procedures in place to protect vulnerable people, with a number of safeguards built into the system.
Yet many people will wonder, if sanctions are only being used as a last resort, what possible explanation there can be for the sudden massive increase in the number being handed out?
And if safeguards are built into the system, why are claimants with mental health conditions increasingly over-represented on the roster of sanctioned individuals?
The DWP also told us in April:
“Everyone has the right to appeal a sanction decision if they disagree with it.”
Which is entirely true. But a Citizens Advice Scotland report on sanctions released yesterday reveals that “many people who are hit by a sanction are not told the reason for it, or how to appeal against it”.
The DWP have good reason to keep people in the dark about their appeal rights. According to the ‘Fulfilling potential? ESA and the fate of the work-related activity group’ report released last month by Mind, tribunals now uphold almost nine out of ten ESA and JSA sanctions appeals.
Such a huge proportion of overturned decisions is ample proof of the savagery of the sanctions regime. But for many people, especially vulnerable claimants suddenly struggling to survive on drastically reduced benefits and no longer able to get legal aid for help with tribunals, coping with the complex new appeal system is an impossibility.
According to the Mind report, written by Catherine Hale, – herself an ESA claimant:
“ . . . findings suggest that the regime of conditionality and sanctions has left participants in the WRAG fearful , demoralised and further away from achieving their work-related goals or participating in society than when they started.”
The report also found that in 87% of cases of claimants failing to participate in a mandatory work-related activity, the reason was related to their health condition, including 19% who had missed an activity because of a medical appointment.
Such cynical targeting of vulnerable claimants is clearly counter-productive in terms of moving them off benefits and into work.
But there is one very likely explanation for the increasing use of sanctions.
Leaked documents obtained by the BBC last month revealed that the DWP expect the cost of ESA to rise by almost £13bn by 2018/19. The documents warn that the increase is “one of the largest fiscal risks currently facing the government” and could cause it to breach its self-imposed benefits cap.
One of the documents also warns that, in terms of cutting costs, there is “not much low-hanging fruit left“.
ESA claimants with mental health conditions are, however, one remaining low-hanging fruit that IDS and his increasingly vicious and shambolic department are determined to pluck as heavily and as quickly as they possibly can.
Source – Benefits & Work, 01 July 2014