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Major UK supermarkets take a very dim view of suppliers utilizing zero-hours contracts throughout the supply chain, notes Dr. Wheelock.
on November 19, 2013

Are zero-hours contracts in the poultry industry becoming an ethical issue?

The expected upturn in UK demand for locally produced poultry meat should not tempt producers to cut corners where employees are concerned.

You may remember that I wrote an article around 18 months ago on the subject of the importance of ethical audits and what you might expect from one. In it, I made reference to the Equality and Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) report into the meat and poultry industry which revealed questionable recruitment practices and worrying treatment of temporary and agency workers.

So, have things changed since then?

We all know that the UK meat industry was in the throes of the horsemeat scandal earlier in the year. While this did not contravene the Ethical Trading Initiative's (ETI) Base Code and was not a safety issue as such, it did mean that supermarkets tightened up their auditing practices in general.

It also prompted certain supermarket chains to buy British, with Tesco pledging to buy 100 percent British chicken as a consequence. In fact, a sharp increase in the price of beef and lamb means that poultry will comprise more than 50 percent of the UK's meat consumption in 2014, according to the British Poultry Council. 

Horsemeat aside, perhaps one of the most worrying developments to arise from the bleak economic situation is the increase of zero-hours contracts for workers. If you look at the ETI Base Code, it stipulates that living wages should be paid, working hours must not be excessive and regular employment should be provided.

Zero-hours contracts are not illegal, but can they really be considered ethical?

Employers argue that it gives them flexibility to meet changing demands and also allows their workers freedom of choice.

Freedom of choice or no choice?

The reality is that, in most cases, the only people benefiting from such contracts are the employers themselves, who can reduce the costs of training and recruitment and can even avoid particular employment obligations such as sick pay, holiday pay and National Insurance contributions.

As Martin Smith of the union GMB said recently, "Rent payments aren't flexible and neither are gas bills or the weekly shopping bill, so flexible wages are not much use to anyone."

Workers on zero-hours contracts have no job security, are not guaranteed regular employment and, while they must be paid at least national minimum wage, the number of hours offered (typically 21 hours per week) can hardly be considered a living wage. Additionally, pay is generally lower for those on such contracts, the majority of whom are non-UK nationals.

As a result, workers are permanently on call. They feel they must take any work offered in case turning down work means they will not be given future employment. This so-called "freedom and flexibility" that employers are talking about simply does not cut the mustard.

Ironically, it is ethical concern that has driven many companies to reduce their dependency on agency workers.

In last year's article, we highlighted that it was mainly agency workers who were getting a raw deal in terms of pay, rights and sometimes even abuse. The Agency Workers' Regulations 2010 have sought to address some of these injustices and has, in fact, increased rates of pay for agency workers. This increase, coupled with the fact that there is more risk and less control over agency workers, has almost certainly seen the recent unprecedented rise in zero-hours contracts for staff employed directly.

Keep retailers happy

The good news is that the major UK retailers (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, John Lewis and Waitrose) do not operate zero-hours contracts themselves and take a very dim view of suppliers utilizing zero-hours contracts throughout the supply chain.

This means that, in this aspect, there is hope that those involved in the supply and process of the 2.2 million chickens eaten in the UK each year may be protected. Likewise, the major employment unions are taking large companies to task over the issue, and there is pressure on the government for reform. 

 

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