Always on call: the problem of zero hour contracts


Andrew Tromans is a History and Politics student at the University of Sheffield.

For many people the notion of a 9-5 job, Saturdays and Sunday for leisure and even basic employment rights such as maternity leave are just not a reality.  I am not talking about night-workers or people working in the emergency services, but people working in zero hour contract jobs.

What are zero hour contracts?

Zero hour contracts are an arrangement between an employer and employee, in which no set hours are given. Work is offered as and when the employer has a use for the worker. However, just as the employer does not have to guarantee work, by the same token an employee can turn down shifts.  Zero hour contracts are very typically used in the catering, cleaning and security industries.

The rise of zero hour economy

Zero hour contracts were first used in the UK during the recession of the early 1990’s. The aim was simple, for businesses to make efficiency savings by only paying for staff when they actually needed them. In an uncertain market and lean times the rationale seems clear. The number of people employed on zero hour contracts has doubled since 2005, with 161,000 people employed in zero hours jobs in June 2012. It is likely the recession and intermittent periods of sluggish growth have had a large impact on this rise of zero hour contracts.

MacDonalds Restaurants have made particular use of zero hour contracts and employs the majority of its 87,500 UK staff on this basis. One MacDonalds employee spoke out about his situation:

“Some weeks you’ll get more hours than you can work, on days that you can’t work – and some weeks you’ll be desperately looking for extra shifts because you’ve got no money.

“There is no law preventing zero hours contracts, but there should be. They’re not fair – they’re not right. They’re exploitative.”

Always on call

Zero hour contracts were largely unregulated before the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and the Working Time Regulations 1998. Prior to these acts, many misuse allegations circulated, with cases being reported where employees were made to remain physically present on their work premises but were not paid until they were needed. Although the National Minimum Wage Act did outlaw this specific form of labour abuse, workers on zero hour contracts still have plenty of misery to contend with. At present, zero hour contract staff do not enjoy the same privileges, such as maternity leave or sickness pay, that full-time staff do.

The contention often cited by workers on a zero hour contract is the unpredictability of their work. It is very much feast or famine, weeks can go by with little or no work and others workers can be given more shifts than they manage.  This is made worse by the fact that if an employer has a mind to, they can call people in or cancel shifts at short notice.  This lack of a secure income could make paying rent or a mortgage a monthly ordeal.

In addition to financial concerns it is important to ask what kind of impact do zero hour arrangements have on family and social life? One has to assume, that if a worker is waiting for a phone call to see if they are going to have a shift that day then making plans with family and friends is difficult. Critically, the irregularity of working patterns could very feasibly make childcare a total nightmare.

Of course workers are at liberty to turn down work if it does not suit them. However, given that zero hour contract staff are normally in “banks” – a pool of workers so that someone can always be called into work, workers may perhaps feel they have a diminished capacity to refuse work in case they are offered less in future.

Can zero hour contracts work?

Zero hour contracts don’t just have the capacity to cause havoc in personal lives but also big events. Take for example the Olympics. At least part of the reason for G4S’s manifest failure to supply enough security personnel for the games was due to the fact that their staff were casually employed.

It is clear that zero hour contracts make perfect business sense, because they allow for supply of labour that can be used only when necessary. But can zero hour contracts be made to work for everyone?

Perhaps if a few key principals were enshrined in employment law then zero hour contracts would be made fairer. First of all there should be a set minimum amount of time in which shifts can be offered and a worker can accept or decline in. A good figure might be 24 hours. Secondly employers should be mindful of significant other commitments in their employees’ lives (study, childcare), and perhaps these lifestyle factors could be noted during an interview. Employers should offer compensation to workers who have travelled a long way only to be sent home after a few hours.

These are only a few recommendations to try to redress the wildly distorted balance in zero hour contracts. It is up to the politicians and unions to do more.

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