1 May 2015

Zero-hours contracts – modern tyranny or flexible friend?

There is an “epidemic” of zero hours contracts (ZHCs) that is “undermining family life”. Individuals on such contracts are “left at the beck and call of an employer who can ask the world of you but can give you no security in return”. So said Ed Miliband when announcing what a Labour government would do to tackle the problem. Labour claim that the number of ZHCs has tripled since 2010.

In contrast, the Conservatives have suggested that ZHCs offer flexibility to employees, claim that the Labour proposals threaten jobs and have accused Labour of whipping up scare stories. They say that only 2% of workers operate under such contracts. 

So who is right? 

A ZHC is generally understood to mean a contract where a worker agrees to perform work when it is available but there is no guarantee of such work being available. It is certainly true that the reported use of ZHCs is increasing. According to the Office for National Statistics, surveys suggest that the number of workers engaged under them doubled between 2012 and 2013. By April 2014, nearly 700,000 workers reported being engaged under ZHCs (a figure representing just over 2% of people  in employment). However, it is uncertain how much of this increase is due to greater awareness of ZHCs by workers. 

Interestingly, it seems that ZHCs are most common in the voluntary and public sectors, and less so in the private sector. Also of note is that 38% of those on ZHCs work full-time and of those working part-time only around a third would like to work more hours.

It should also not be forgotten that whilst a ZHC will not guarantee the individual a minimum amount of work, such individuals will still benefit from the protections associated with their status as (typically) employees or workers. In the case of Southern v Britannia Hotels Ltd and another ET/1800507/14, the claimant worked under a ZHC. She was nonetheless an employee who was able to bring a claim when she was subjected to sexual harassment and she received an award of £19,500 for injury to feelings. The fact the claimant was working under a ZHC (and therefore had no guarantee of work) was seen to make her more vulnerable, which in turn seemed to play into the Tribunal’s decision in her favour.

Despite their differences of opinion as to how much of a problem ZHCs represent, all the main parties have put forward proposals for regulating them. The Labour party say that employees who work regular hours for twelve weeks under a ZHC would have their arrangements converted into a ‘normal’ contract. The Tories propose banning exclusivity clauses in ZHCs (thereby ensuring the individual could work for more than one employer at a time). 

However, both proposals are vulnerable to avoidance measures by unscrupulous employers (for example by guaranteeing employees one hour’s work per week so as to avoid the contract being classified as a ZHC). Moreover, the Labour proposal would not protect those who are non-employees (eg workers) or those doing irregular hours - those who, it might be said, are most in need of protection. 

So whether you think that ZHCs represent a form of tyranny or that they provide welcome flexibility in the labour market, they are unlikely to be disappearing anytime soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment