Important new information has emerged via an FOI response which states that unemployed benefit claimants should not be sanctioned for not applying for or not taking up a job on a zero hours contract.
This suggests that someone at the DWP has spotted a looming problem for Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms which could see up to a million jobs on zero-hours contracts unavailable for benefit claimants because of stringent new rules on benefit conditionality.
Zero-hours contracts are a fast growing phenomena which are used by grasping employers to strip away workplace rights and demolish job security. Instead of regular hours for regular pay, companies force employees to sign a contract which simply states they will be available for work, but offers no guarantee of any work actually being available.
On many contracts workers are obliged to take any shifts offered, often on short notice, meaning it is not possible to commit to a second job, study or any other form of activity in case you are called in to work. It is not just the private sector who have embraced these exploitative arrangements, many public and voluntary sector jobs now come with these kinds of contracts.
This presents a huge problem for Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms and the newly introduced Claimant Commitments. These commitments involve a massively extended system of conditionality for claiming benefits. Claimants on the unemployment benefit Jobseekers Allowance will now be expected to show that they are spending 35 hours a week on ‘work related activity’ which means anything from applying for jobs to attending training sessions or even workfare. Single parents with children over 5 are now also being dragged into this regime and forced to endlessly look for work whilst their kids are at school. Once their children are 13 they will be expected to work full time, and travel up to 90 minutes each way to work and back leaving teenage children abandoned from dawn til dusk.
When Universal Credit is finally introduced, part time workers will also have to show that they are looking for ‘more or better paid’ work to be able to maintain in-work benefits such as the Housing Element of the new benefit (which will replace Housing Benefits).
Millions of people are set to be affected. And not one of them will be able to sign a zero hours contracts without potentially losing their in-work benefits. Under the new rules, someone working 16 hours a week, can now be sent on Mandatory Work Activity (workfare) by the Jobcentre for the remaining 19 hours a week. If they refuse they can have benefits sanctioned, possibly for up to three years. If they attend this workfare, then they are likely to be in breach of their zero-hours contract.
This is likely to be one reason why according to the latest information from the DWP, claimants cannot be forced to take a job on a zero-hours contract. The DWP would rather have you on workfare, or sat at an A4e or G4S training centre then sitting at home waiting on your employer to offer you a shift.
But the DWP haven’t made the problem go away. Many major companies, including McDonals, JD Wetherspoon and Sport Direct now have most of their workforce on zero-hours contracts. And many of these low paid and often part time workers are exactly the kind of people who will need to claim Universal Credit if only to pay the some portion of their rent. And they won’t be able to. Unless they give up work.
So whilst with one hand the DWP is doing everything they can to bully claimants into low paid, part time and insecure work, with the other it is actively preventing them from taking up that kind of work with some of the UK’s largest employers. And all because of welfare reforms scribbled down on the back of an envelope by Ministers who are completely out of touch with the realities of the workplace for those at the bottom of the income scale.
Not everyone is taking zero-hours contracts lying down. The Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union – who have strong anti-workfare policies – are currently taking industrial action at Hovis after agency workers on zero-hour contracts were brought in to replace workers previously made redundant. Show solidarity by helping spread the word and following them on twitter @IanBFAWU
Above pic via Boycott Workfare’s facebook page.
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