The rise of Zero Hour Contracts

The days of the traditional contract, be it part time or full time, are coming to an end. The last few years has seen the rise of alternative employment arrangements, such as flexitime, job sharing, remote working- and the ever popular zero hours contract.

Statistics recently collated show that the number of staff on zero hour contracts has risen, with almost a quarter of large UK employers using such contracts, in both public and private industries. The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study found that 23% of employers used zero hour contracts in 2011, rising from 11% 1n 2004.  Companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch and McDonald’s have long used such contracts, with larger charities and the public sector recently following suit.

In low paid sectors such as catering and cleaning, it is a relatively commonplace practice (and in many instances, the employees have to buy their own uniforms). However, it is the same for some jobs requiring skill, experience and responsibility.

G4S has previously employed custody detention officers- who work alongside  Lincolnshire police to oversee the safety and security of custody centres- on such zero hour contracts. Amidst concerns as to the quality and experience of the G4S custody staff, a G4S spokesman defended the initiative, stating that zero hour contracts gave “additional resilience to forces, and ensure they can respond effectively to peaks and troughs in demand, typically coinciding with major sporting events or music festivals…This pool of officers, less than 10%… receive the same training as their [full time] colleagues… and their skills are kept up to date through regular work and training.”

Concerned about the business approach of the public private partnership scheme, David Hanson, shadow policing minister, stated that “the police can suddenly be busy handling a public order situation, so what checks are in the system to ensure staff are available? Any public-private partnerships must pass tough tests on value for money, on resilience and security, on transparency and accountability, and most of all on public trust. The public need to trust that policing is being done in the interests of justice, not the corporate balance sheet.”

The same criticisms can be levelled at bank and agency staff currently provided for the healthcare industry- again many of them on zero hour contracts. Opposition MP’s and employee rights advocates are similarly critical of the concept of zero hour contracts, claiming that such contracts allow employers to avoid regular employer- agency worker relationships. Legislation entitles agency workers to the same working terms and conditions as permanent employees after 12 weeks. Additionally, such an arrangement gives little peace of mind to employees, who often do not know if they are working from one day to the next- especially in jobs where the rota can be changed with as little as 24 hours’ notice.

The Labour Research Department (which studies employment trends) is concerned that zero hour contracts are “increasingly being used to replace proper secure employment with its associated guaranteed level of paid work and other benefits… [zero hour contracts] can be applied in such a way that a worker, in order to have any chance of getting paid work, is obliged to be available for work at the whim of the employer and so cannot commit themselves to any other employment.”

In defence of the practice, many employers cite that the flexibility is very popular and beneficial for both employers and employees- especially employees juggling family or other onerous commitments. Many employers allow employees to choose shifts either in advance or online- and the inherent flexibility means that many employees do not have to sit by the phone waiting and worrying for a phone call. Employees can arrange their working patterns around often hectic lifestyles, and not the other way round, at times more suitable to their individual needs.

It is without doubt that the concept of zero hour contracts has, and will continue to, exploit ruthlessly low paid or young workers, or similarly vulnerable workers. It does alter the employer/employee relationship legally, in favour of the employer, sometimes to the employee’s detriment.

Despite such criticisms, zero hour contracts are both a product a reflection of the hectic, flexible, 24hr lifestyle of 21st century Britain- and are here to stay. The popularity and flexibility of such arrangements will continue to rise; regulation and perhaps legislation is needed to ensure that such a system is not exploited for employer gain.