Zero-hour contracts

Zero; a number that is often a good sign, i.e. the number of days left to an event you are looking forward to, however, in this case, it is far from it.

Zero-hours contracts, a flexible way of employing people on demand, are becoming more complicated by the minute. The contract, which has become widely used by a number of fast food chains and even Buckingham Palace, is a complete muddle in my opinion. On one hand, it offers the flexibility for students or young families to work when it suites them. On the other hand, it could be seen to be immoral, down to the unpredictable nature of the contract which does not guarantee any work at all.

I feel that if there is to be a continuation of such a contract, the conditions must meet employment rights and provide more assurance that the employee will get working hours. This would, however, eliminate the option to call it a zero-hours contract but a solution that works for both the employer and employee is the best way forward. To get onto the positive side of the argument, any employee on such a contract does have the right to refuse work, therefore maintaining the flexibility that many find appealing about this type of work.

Among employers using zero-hours as a method of employment are McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, the infamous G4S and even Buckingham Palace. I am glad to say that there is some choice in the matter with some of the named employers, however, it is not the number of hours which concerns me. I have been saying for a while that the issue isn’t with the flexibility. If anything, this is the one good point about the type of employment. Despite this, I see normal part-time work as the better option. Still offering an element of flexibility and unlike the zero-hours contract, guaranteed income. I may be old fashioned but this is far better than the uncertainty that comes with zero-hours work.

In terms of the legal issues with such a contract, it is almost impossible to monitor. Under the current legislation covering this contract and all other work for that matter, it is a requirement to pay an employee for the time for which they are on site. It has come to my attention while researching this topic that this law is not always being adhered to. Mentioning no employer in particular, there have been allegations that some workplaces have been keeping clocked off employees on site, largely as a backup for the when business is booming. This is, however, currently illegal and not something that I would endorse or approve of.

The issue with this type of contract is something that can be fixed and the government, by launching a consultation on the morals and legal issues with the contract, have taken the right step. The good thing about the zero-hours contract is that it provides flexibility. Then again, I see no way of adjusting it to make guaranteed income without scrapping it completely and going back to good old fashioned part-time work.

It is, however, good to see that many of the employers using this contract are being picked up on for inappropriate use. Both McDonalds and Sports Direct have been flagged up for employing around 90% of their workforce on zero-hours contracts. This is a very high amount and begs the question whether big corporate companies are exploiting such methods to save money. It’s not like they are exactly short of it.

In the UK, the zero-hours contract is becoming more common and almost a routine way of employing new staff. I don’t think it is a good idea that so many of our nations students and young families, who have unfulfilled potential, are employed on a contract that demeans and ignores their skills for the sake of saving money. Among some of the worst offenders, aside from the ones mentioned above, are Boots, Domino’s Pizza, The Tate Galleries, Amazon, who were said to be tracking employees and subjecting them to terrible working conditions, and even The National Trust. It is saddening to see some of the businesses and institutions that we think of as being moral and sensible, using these contracts on such a large scale.

The sectors involved in this range from healthcare to Further and Higher Education. It is strange to think that some of the staff that look after our Education may actually be on little work themselves. Reading through the House of Commons notes on the contract, it brings out some rather alarming facts and suggestions, however, one thing that was interesting was that the consultation which is currently going on will report back to Vince Cable in late March. This is something that I will be watching very closely.

On the surface, the zero-hours contract may seem to be sold to us as a flexible way of working, which, of course, I entirely agree on, however, in the economic climate that we are in, sneaky exclusivity clauses in contract make so much difference. This, aside from being inconvenient, also limits the income the employee can earn. Many people who are on zero-hours contracts do not have sufficient hours to either support their family or their studies, depending on what situation you are in. This, however, does mean that the employee may want or need to juggle more than one job to support their needs. Unfortunately, such is the nature of the exclusivity clause, that it bans the employee from working for any other employer. This is just plain wrong in almost everyones eyes and, as far as I understand, is something that the government is looking to ban. For once, I find myself agreeing with Ed Milliband on that one. Now that is freaky!

As much as there may currently be legal, moral and financial issues with the contract, I think that these, with time and work, can be fixed. It may end up being the case but I see no reason to ban or scrap the contract completely. It does, however, need intervention and monitoring from the government.

Overall, the method of employing people needs changes. If not, I do not see how it can continue. The days or rather hours of the zero-hours contract may be numbered, right down to when it gets to that all important number. Zero!

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