Lifting the lid on high street giant Next and how they use minimum hours contracts to exploit their staff


Although zero hours contracts are very much in the news at the moment, another type of contract that we have heard less about that is just as exploitative, is the minimum hours contract. Typically although these consist of contracted hours below 12 hours per week, the employee often finds that they will be put under pressure to work hours far in excess of those stated by their contracts, but with no improvement in conditions such as holiday pay or time off.

One well known employer that often takes full advantage of minimum hours contracts is the high street clothing giant Next, who have a tarnished track record when it comes to working conditions and employee relations.

The Chief Executive of Next plc is Tory Lord Simon Wolfson, married to Eleanor Shawcross, George Osborne’s economic adviser. Wolfson sold £3.8m of his £45m of shares in Next in 2012 to pay for their lavish wedding and new home.

A backer of David Cameron’s leadership campaign with links to the Tory think-tank Policy Exchange, between 2006 to 2012 Wolfson donated £418,350.00 (1) to the Conservative party and is said to have secured considerable influence over George Osbourne and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF), which calls for a radical overhaul of planning rules, including the abolition of the Green Belt (2). It is not unusual for corporate backers, who make large donations to be placed in positions of exercising influence over Tory policy.

Wolfson made headlines earlier this year when he waived his £4m share bonus in order to share it amongst Next’s 20,000 staff that had worked in the company since April 2011. This amounted to an average of about £200 each, he also raised the wages of sales and stock room assistants by 37p per hour. However, despite this he still collected a £4.6m pay package (3). Considering that he earns 459 times more than one of his employees, you may think it was about time he gave something back.

Although Wolfson attracted praise for waiving his bonus, back on the shop floor things are very different. Staff dissatisfaction means that turn-over tends to be high, leaving many stores short staffed. Employees on eight hour contracts are regularly pressured to work far in excess of twenty hours per week.

Although at face value extra hours may appear to be a good thing, an increase in entitlement to employee benefits such as holiday pay, sick pay and regular working patterns are not forthcoming. Rather than offer existing employees better contracts, it seems endemic across the Next empire that stores are discouraged from this in favour of bullying staff to do extra hours or taking on more staff on short hours or temporary contracts, in the knowledge that there is a plentiful supply of people desperate for work.

One employee from a store in Humberside said, “you will be given a tiny contract usually 4-12 hours. However they will expect you to work 20-30 hours a week, so that when it comes time for you to take your holidays, you will only be paid for your small contracted hours.”

Another employee from store in South Yorkshire said, “I don’t mind the extra work, but I would rather have a proper contract for those hours. Often I will be pressured into working on days that I have said I am unavailable. It is difficult to plan anything.”

A stock room assistant said, “I have a four hour contract over one day but management always rota me for other delivery days and expect me to work it regardless. Breaks are very rare, I have worked seven, eight, nine and even ten hour shifts with no break what so ever.”

A bullying culture amongst management seems to be universal across the chain, “any punishment is recorded with your name written on a very large staff canteen notice board. They change your shifts but notifying you only when it suits them, this has lead to problems as people have turned up on the wrong days and times.

“The most unforgivable of all their actions was when they refused my request for leave when my 80 year old mum was taken seriously ill to hospital,” explained one employee from Peterborough.

Employee after employee has criticised the management for bullying, intimidation, lack of organisation, not providing proper training and prying into employee’s personal lives.

Attempting to avoid paying employees for overtime is another problem, as an ex-employee from Gloucester explains, “I usually found myself finishing 30-45 minutes past my contracted finishing time and on many occasions, they tried not to pay me for this.”

In 2008 trainee manager Sarah Tanner was sacked by Next in Swansea when she revealed that she was pregnant (4). Sarah said: “When I told the store manager I was pregnant, her first words were, ‘well, you won’t be entitled to maternity pay, you haven’t been with us long enough.’

“I checked with human resources and found I was entitled to maternity pay after all.”

A week later, after five days off with a serious bout of morning sickness, her boss told her she could not have sick pay because she had not been sent home from work. Within three weeks of that, she was sacked.

Ten days after her dismissal, she miscarried and lost her baby. The resulting tribunal upheld Sarah’s claim that she suffered sex discrimination and was unlawfully dismissed. Her £19,044 compensation award included £12,500 for emotional distress.

Earlier this year, GMB members toured Next stores around the country to present store managers with an ‘ASBO’, accusing the company of failing to make work pay for Next workers (5).

The protesters called for an increase in the working hours offered to its employees and for the introduction of a £7.65 ‘living’ wage.

Mick Rix, GMB national officer for retail staff said, “GMB will present an ASBO to Next as an employer that does not face up to its social responsibilities.”

Unite Community urges all of those that work at stores like Next to get organised, get protection and join a trade union. We also call upon any future Labour government to ban these exploitative contracts and ensure that employees are treated with respect and dignity by employers such as Next.

(1) click here

(2) click here

(3) click here

(4) click here

(5) click here