Labour stands accused of having double standards as it is revealed more than 2,000 staff at party-controlled councils in the North East are employed on controversial zero hours contracts.
Ed Miliband has declared he wants to outlaw the contracts, which allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work, claiming they allow businesses to ‘exploit’ workers.
But a Freedom of Information investigation by The Journal has revealed how several local authorities controlled by the party are still using them.
“We need flexibility,” the Labour leader said yesterday, during his speech at the TUC conference. “But we must stop flexibility being used as the excuse for exploitation.
“And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to zero-hour contracts.”
But at Labour-run Gateshead Council, 1,285 individuals are signed up to zero hours contracts.
Coun Jonathan Wallace, leader of the Lib Dem group, said Labour was being hypocritical.
He said: “This is an example of the Labour party saying one thing and doing the opposite but bear in mind that for many people zero hours contracts are ideal. I think the Labour party has to tread very carefully because they could put a lot of people out of work, but if they are going to ban zero hours contracts they should stop using them themselves at Gateshead Council.”
The council said some contracts were for events like the Junior Great North Run, while the majority are for emergency and sessional cover.
Jeff Dean, Gateshead’s service director for human resources, said: “Councils have always relied to some extent on agency staff and casual workers to cover critical staff shortages.
“Without them, services would suffer and hundreds of people could be affected.
“We recently went through a process of reviewing all the situations where we use casual workers and offered full employment contracts to several hundred of those who work frequently for us with more predictable patterns of work.
“However, many people who have worked for us prefer not to have any obligation to us in this respect.
“We have not introduced zero hours contracts for any existing employees as a means of cost-cutting, or changed anyone’s agreed hours to zero hours.”
North Tyneside Council, a Labour-controlled authority since May, has assigned 328 zero hours contracts. Mayor Norma Redfearn has pledged an internal review. She said: “When I came into office in May I was astounded to discover how many zero hours contracts are in place here in the council.
“I do understand how difficult it is for those people on these zero hours contracts especially the unpredictable hours, irregular pay and lack of job security.
“I have asked officers to carry out a full analysis of all zero hours contracts so a wide-ranging review can take place.”
South Tyneside Council employs 284 people on zero hours while Northumberland County Council has 83 zero hours contracts in operation. Both are Labour-led, though Labour only took over Northumberland in May.
A South Tyneside Council spokesman said: “The council uses zero hours contracts in positions where employees are ultimately seeking a flexible approach to working. It tends to be in the care and leisure sectors, where people are used to working these kind of hours and do so, to suit their lifestyles.
“We do not run council services on zero hours contracts alone, we use the contracts to support the council’s existing full-time and part-time workforce, mainly to cover short-term occurrences like holidays, sickness and peaks in workload.”
A spokesman for Northumberland County Council said: “Our contracts are similar to those for casual workers, but provide more protection and rights.
“The worker agrees to make themselves available for work and, while the contract doesn’t guarantee work, when specific work is offered the worker does not have to do it. Additionally we don’t prevent the worker from taking on work from another employer.”
Newcastle City Council and Durham County Council say they have no employees on a zero hours contract.
As part of Mr Miliband’s TUC speech yesterday he said he plans to consult with businesses on zero hours contracts and whether the law would need to be changed to enforce them.
A Labour party spokesperson said as many as a millionworkers could be on the contracts, and added: “Zero-hours contracts provide flexibility which in some circumstances can work for employers and employees.
“But under David Cameron we have seen the rise of insecurity at work: as living standards have fallen there has been a sharp rise in the use of zero-hours contracts while the Tory-led government have made it easier to fire, not easier to hire people, by watering down the rights people have at work.”