This week Labour was in full cry again demanding an end to zero hour contracts and part time jobs. They regularly now denounce employers who offer anything short of a full time job at a decent rate of pay. There is nothing wrong with that an as ambition. Worse is their wish to imply that Conservatives do not want people to have good jobs and decent pay, and their suggestion that somehow we can legislate to ensure that everyone has a full time job at a good rate of pay. They often seem to condemn all part time jobs, without accepting that some part time jobs are good and sought after.
As a Conservative I am as keen or keener than Labour MPs to see more people in work with good jobs and decent pay. We do not, contrary to their suggestion, disagree about the aim. What we disagree about is the means of getting there, and the complexity of life which means not everyone wants a full time job.
Labour, of course, did not live their current brand on this topic when in government. In thirteen years they did not legislate to ban zero hours contracts or part time work. More interestingly, some Labour Councils and Trade Unions themselves have used zero hours contracts, cheap interns and part time workers for their own purposes. When I asked the Labour front bench spokesman last week to assure me no Trade Union or Labour Council – and I might have added Labour MP- uses zero hour contracts, offers of part time where people want full time, or cheap interns – he was unable to give me that assurance.
Let’s take the issue first of all of part time employment. Some people want part time employment because they have family or caring responsibilities that take up the rest of their time. Some want part time as part of a partial retirement package. Some fortunate people have a series of well paid part time jobs as part of an interesting life based on a portfolio of interests. Some part time work is well paid. If you challenge Labour they have to agree that not all part time jobs are badly paid and held by people who want and need to work full time but cannot get such employment.
If we then narrow down the issue to the harder cases, I accept that some people have lower paid part time jobs who would like better paid and full time employment. Sometimes starting off with an employer part time enables you to work your way up to a better paid and fuller time job. If the poorly paid part time job is a passing phase, a step to a better job, it may be part of a necessary process. A poorly paid part time job can be a better step towards a decent job than staying on the dole. Under new rules it should also always be better to take such a job financially. All political parties accept some element of public subsidy to poorly paid employment through the benefit and tax credit system. The benefit system has put perverse incentives in place in the past discouraging fuller time employment.
If we look at zero hours contracts, again there are bad ones and good ones. Some taxi drivers belong to a marketing company or central business which gets them jobs. They wish to work the hours that suit them, and only earn when they are out and about collecting fares. The marketing company could probably not afford to put them all on a full time salary, and would have difficulty rostering them and making some work late shifts or very early shifts. The earn as you work approach can solve the phasing of taxi availability and gives the driver more control over when he works. Should this be banned? The issue with zero hour contracts is one of contractual power. If it is a single employer, and they are bad at the number of hours they allow you to work, but insist on your availability, that may be a very bad deal. Surely then anyone in such a position will be spending time trying to get a better job as soon as possible. It is quite difficult defining in law bad contracts which we ban, whilst not denying flexible contracts which both parties willingly enter.
The issue of interns and work experience is even more difficult. Increasingly young people need to show they have done something like this to improve their chances of a job offer. The system can be open to abuse, if an employer expects too much of a work experience person or intern and pays them little or nothing. The system also favours young people with good family connections who may get the better offers from family contacts. How do you regulate that to allow sensible work experience, to avoid exploitation, and to level the playing field for those without family keys to golden doors?