Further education unions have given a cautious welcome to newly-announced government consultations on zero-hour contracts and apprentice pay.

A review of the controversial employment agreements over the summer has finished and Business Secretary Vince Cable said it was being followed up with a consultation, looking closely at “exclusivity” — whether the contracts were being used to stop workers getting jobs elsewhere.

It is also clear that there are abuses in the system, especially around the issue of exclusivity which some employers are demanding from workers on these contracts.”

 He has also asked the Low Pay Commission (LPC) to investigate how the national minimum wage (NMW) — which stands at £2.65 for apprentices (but goes up 3p next month) — might “rise by more than current conditions allow”.

Just weeks after FE Week reported on research from the University and College Union (UCU) that suggested nearly two out of every three colleges had teachers on the controversial zero-hour contracts, Dr Cable said: “It is clear they [zero-hour contracts] are much more widely used than we had previously thought.

“It is also clear that there are abuses in the system, especially around the issue of exclusivity which some employers are demanding from workers on these contracts.”

Critics of zero-hour contracts argue they create uncertainty in the workforce, leaving staff without sick or holiday pay, and make it difficult to get tenancy agreements, credit cards or loans because it is impossible to show a regular income. But proponents claim they allow for flexible working patterns and mean employers can take on more staff.

A UCU spokesperson told FE Week: “We welcome the belated establishment by Dr Cable of a consultation on zero-hour contracts.”

He added: “We will be submitting detailed evidence to the consultation and we will argue that education is best served when practitioners operate in a secure, decently-rewarded working environment.”

Norman Crowther, national official for post-16 education at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “We are pleased the government is reviewing zero-hour contracts and want it to be alert to the wider effects of such contracts on the general workforce, on effective team working, and on the status of professional lecturers in further and higher education.”

Meanwhile, Dr Cable said he wanted the LPC to look at the NMW to “make sure that the benefits of growth are shared fairly across the board”.

He added: “I have asked the LPC to look at what economic conditions would be needed to allow the NMW to rise by more than current conditions allow.”

Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, said: “It is encouraging to see the government will be looking into making wages fairer across the workforce.

“We shouldn’t forget that the two thirds of students are workers too and being able to increase the NMW more easily is definitely something that could directly and immediately improve many students’ financial circumstances. However, these measures do not stand to help the many students and young people that are being exploited either in unpaid internships and badly, and sometimes illegally, under-paid apprenticeships.”

Members of the LPC plan to visit Gloucester and Newport on October 3 and 4 and want to meet people affected by the NMW.

Contact Roz Hands by emailing rosalind.hands@lowpay.gov.uk to meet a commissioner.

The LPC is due to report back to Dr Cable in the spring. The launch date for the zero-hour contracts consultation is expected to be confirmed later this year.

See page 6 for an expert piece

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