Should we be in defence of Zero Hours Contracts?
Many column inches and tweets recently have been dedicated to the debate of how “exploitive” zero-hour contracts can be and with some unscrupulous employers that can indeed be the case.
But what are “Zero Hours” Contracts?
A zero-hour contract is a contract of employment used in the United Kingdom which while meeting the terms of the Employment Rights Act 1996 by providing a written statement of the terms and conditions of employment contains provisions which create an ‘on call’ arrangement between employer and employee. It does not oblige the employer to provide work for the employee, nor does it oblige the employee to accept the work offered. The employee agrees to be available for work as and when required, so that no particular number of hours or times of work are specified
How have they been abused?
It has been brought to light under reviews by the government and CIPD research that there have been some unethical practices with regards to “Zero Hours” contracts such as allocation of shifts, being penalised for refusing work or not being offered work, not calculating the accrual of holidays etc.
To this end, it is hoped that Vince Cable’s official review will ensure that abuse of the zero hour principle is curtailed, wherever it exists. Hopefully, Mr Cable will also consider the reasons why so many people have to accept uncertain terms to do unskilled jobs that they are often over-qualified to do.
Reasonable alternative for some – when applied fairly?
Contrary to all the bad publicity that has been conjured up about zero-hours contracts, our belief is that they actually offer a reasonable alternative to SME businesses whose work is seasonal or intermittent, such as retail, property sales and hospitality/tourism or where money is tight due to trading restrictions of one type or another.
Far from sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring, many workers are using zero-hour contracts (and juggling more than one zero-hours contract) to supplement their income while they study or train to acquire new skills, care for dependents or give their time voluntarily to charitable causes. In this scenario, the contract provides the freedom to pick and choose to work as and when convenient, planning and using time effectively to create a good work/life balance.
Zero hour contracts are not for all; that much is clear
If you are on a zero-hours contract and need to achieve full-time hours with a regular income (probably a good percentage of the population), then the lack of regular income, sickness cover and security is going to cancel out any benefits of such a flexible contract for you.
There is an obvious issue if people who should working full-time, and are doing full-time jobs, are on such contracts – not just because of the lack of security but because the cost of sickness and intermittent employment then falls upon the state rather than the firm. There is also a danger that their more widespread use would create a two-tier employment market, divided between those with protection and those without, as happens in France.
But one reason why many people have to take uncertain, unskilled jobs is because they lack the training and experience to do anything else. So, in my opinion, better opportunities to work flexibly whilst acquiring new skills will do far more to fix the problem than rigid employment practices.
We hope Mr Cable’s review, due to be published at the end of this year, will help curtail abuses where they exist but please… give our British SME’s a break! To abandon zero-hour contracts entirely and curb the flexibility that has made Britain’s employment market so robust even in the past five recessionary years may be a backwards step.