They are held up by business organisations, right-wing think-tanks and the Department for Work and Pensions as a triumph of Britain’s “flexible” labour market, supposedly benefiting employers and employees alike.
Zero-hours contracts are on the march. The latest official data suggests that their use is accelerating at a rate comparable to Usain Bolt coming out of the blocks in the 100 metres. The number of people on them in 2014 climbed by nearly a fifth to 744,000.
That might represent only 2.4 per cent of the UK workforce, but at their rate of expansion the argument that they are imposed upon only a small proportion of the workforce won’t hold good for long.
Small wonder. Their attraction to employers is obvious. They can be used to create pools of adequately skilled labour at the beck and call of the latter – labour which is free from the cost of providing for sick pay, holidays or other benefits commonly associated with full-time contracts of employment.
Proponents argue that the employee also wins because they aren’t tied to fixed hours; handy for students or parents.
The trouble is, the contracts almost always seem to work best for the employer. What, you have a heavy course load at the moment? Fine, you don’t have to work this week. Or next week. Can’t do Thursday night because you have childcare issues? Don’t expect to do Friday night either. Want to work extra hours this week because your mortgage is due? Can’t help you there. Try.
Sometimes the disadvantages to workers are quite subtle. Care workers, for example, are often paid only for the time they spend with clients and not for the hours taken up travelling between them.
Then there is the issue of exclusivity: tying a worker to one employer. While including this as an explicit part of the employment contract has been banned, the reality is that there is very little the authorities can do to prevent the subtle imposition of exclusivity clauses.
But people’s ability to manage more than one zero-hours contract will, anyway, be limited. Most will eventually find themselves faced with a conflict leading to their having to refuse hours from one of their employers, putting the allocation of future hours at risk.
The term “flexible” is in many ways a misnomer, at least as far as the employee is concerned. It says it all that one harassed worker told Unison that the uncertainty of their zero-hours job left them with no control over their life.
This is an arrangement whose benefit is almost exclusively to the employer. Its growth highlights one of the problems with the style of free-market capitalism we have adopted in this country: it frequently leads to power imbalances, making for markets that aren’t as free as the theory suggests.
Hence the requirement for regulators in fields such as financial services, telecommunications and utilities, to (in theory) protect the interest of the small consumer when they come into conflict with large powerful businesses.
Unfortunately when it comes to zero-hours contracts there is no will on the part of the Government to provide any meaningful form of regulation.
Instead it thinks they should simply be re-branded so that they sound nicer. The DWP has proposed calling them “flexible-hours contracts” in the same way that the “minimum wage” has become the Treasury’s “living wage”, even though it is still based on what the market will bear rather than on the actual cost of living.
While zero-hours contracts are slowly insinuating themselves into professional sectors – the pilots of passenger aircraft are an example – a living wage is another thing that too many people on zero-hours contracts fail to achieve. By contrast with those who would defend the concept, none of whom would dream of accepting a zero-hours contract for themselves.
The above article is from The Independent.