By Debbie le Quesne

It’s zero hour time again, Mr Cable

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At the height of summer when the temperatures soared into the 30s Business Secretary Vince Cable was getting hot under the collar about more than the heat. Zero hour contracts were troubling him ­– and me.

He announced he was undertaking a fact-finding review of the contracts.

With claims of abuse in the air over such working practices, Mr Cable was quoted as saying in an online Community Care article: “Whilst it’s important our workforce remains flexible, it is equally important that it is treated fairly. This is why I have asked my officials to undertake some work to better understand how this type of contract is working in practice.”

The government minister has stated that over the last ten years there had been a rise in the use of zero hour contracts – an inevitable consequence of the current financial squeeze on the care sector.

As far as we understand, there’s no timescale involved in this review and it’s all about “understanding” the working arrangements. Read into that what you will.

But the issue will not go away and Mr Cable is under increasing pressure to act more robustly with claims by the Lancaster University-based Work Foundation that a review is inadequate.

Thousands of care workers don’t know if they will have any work from week-to-week

More than 30,000 care workers in the West Midlands are on zero-hours contracts, government ministers have admitted.

And the figure has increased rapidly, from 26,000 last year and 24,000 in 2011.

I think this is a sad reflection on the way social care is currently funded that care providers feel that the only way they can deliver is with such contracts.

They are not fair to employees who may be left in a financial minefield and they are certainly not good for service users.

Micro tendering in Birmingham has resulted in the cost of care packages being driven down and the only way to sustain business is for these packages to be embraced.

It’s easy to take the moral high ground, but such desperate economic climbs have their casualties.

There are so many home care providers with precarious businesses and I personally don’t have any clever answers.

But one thing I do know and the West Midlands Care Association will always strive for is care workers to be valued.

It is a proper job, an essential ‘calling’ if you like and one worthy of career structure.

As an Association we support hundreds of care providers and we know that they value their staff and would like to offer them better financial packages.

But with ever-increasing cuts in budgets, how can they do this?

Unfortunately I think the situation will become more acute before it gets better.

With new pensions initiatives coming on line next year, clearly the Government is worried about lack of financial provision for such workers as they reach old age.

My fear is that zero contracts will be outlawed. Yes, a morally sound decision, but a disastrous one for the care sector. We need, Mr Cable, a solution that sustains the care sector while simultaneously protecting those currently caught in the zero trap.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that a survey of 1,000 employers showed that one in five employed at least one person on a zero-hours contract.


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