Probation hostel wardens offered 'zero-hours' deal

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Labour Editor

Hostel wardens who often look after criminals have been offered Burger King-style "zero hours contracts" by the probation service.

Relief workers in special homes, used for suspects on bail and criminals on probation, have been asked to be on call virtually 24 hours a day, but are only paid when they work.

They are thought to be among the first government employees to be offered the arrangement, which first came to public notice when employment conditions among temporary workers at a Burger King restaurant in Glasgow were exposed. It has since abandoned the contracts.

The auxiliary hostel staff, mostly women, are not expected to wait on the premises for work as they were at the restaurant but in common with Burger King, they are only employed on a pay-as-you-work basis.

Relief wardens in West Yorkshire have enlisted the help of community lawyers to fight the new system, but the National Association of Probation Officers believes the practice is widespread throughout the country and growing because of cuts in budgets. The auxiliary workers in West Yorkshire used to be given substantial notice of shifts, according to lawyers, and some were regularly working at least 30 hours a week.

Cuts have meant that there are no permanently employed wardens available to be switched from one hostel to another in case of absence. Back-up staff have been warned, however, that there will be fewer work opportunities.

One of several women who contacted Kirklees Community Law Centre in Yorkshire - she wants to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job - had been employed as a hostel relief worker for more than two years but had not been offered a contract of employment.

Without specialist training, but with a high degree of "interpersonal skill" required for the job, she was paid pounds 5.74 an hour and relied on it for her income. At times she had sole responsibility for a hostel.

Previously she was notified monthly about shifts she would be required to work. But in September she received a letter from management acknowledging that there may have been "some confusion" about the status of assistant wardens.

It added: "As a relief worker, you are employed on a casual, as and when required basis, in order to provide cover when permanent staff are not available. As a casual worker, there is no obligation on you to accept work and equally there is no obligation on the hostels to provide you with work."

Julia O'Hara, a lawyer at the law centre, said it was clear that her client could be called in with little or no notice and that a refusal to accept shifts would eventually lead to the loss of her job.

Probation service officials in West Yorkshire yesterday argued that the new working arrangements had been forced on them by a reduction in budgets. But a management source conceded that the employment conditions of assistant wardens were "highly unsatisfactory".

Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union said the growth of zero- hours contracts would lead to a deterioration in the service.