Zero-hours contracts were discussed during today’s Questions to the Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry. Mike Nesbitt was keen to discover the Minister’s assessment of the public consultation into the contracts. A number of critical issues were identified – an acceptance that exclusivity clauses are not appropriate in the majority of employment contracts; a need for a clear, unambiguous legal definition of zero-hours and other non-guaranteed-hours contracts; and, while an appropriate use of these contracts can be beneficial to the labour market, “it is clear that they can have an adverse impact on vulnerable workers, particularly in accessing benefits and credit”. Mr Farry recognises the need to protect the rights of workers and intends to use his Department’s upcoming Employment Bill “to establish a clear, unambiguous definition of zero-hours and non-guaranteed-hours contracts and to prohibit the use of exclusivity clauses.” Employees will be given the right to request fixed-hour contracts after a specified period and will require the employer to review and justify the continuance of a zero-hours contract after that specified period.
Stephen Moutray also took the opportunity to gain on update on the Steps 2 Success programme (an employment programme designed to help unemployed and economically inactive people build the skills and experience needed to find and keep a job). The programme became operational in October 2014. The three organisations awarded contracts to run the initiative were Ingeus in Greater Belfast, ‘Reed in Partnership’ in the south and south-west and EOS NI in the north and north-west. Each organisation has local supply chain partners to provide full geographical coverage and specialist support for all participants. Activities offered can include job search activity, vocational training, confidence building, preparation of CVs, assistance with health-related issues and short work placements. The Department has also instructed a quality improvement team to monitor and ensure a high quality service is delivered.
During Question Time the Minister also answered questions on jobs fairs, financial awareness, Antrim and Stranmillis Colleges and the European Social Fund.