Jeremy Corbyn has pledged that if Labour were elected to government next month then they would scrap zero hour contracts altogether. There is plenty wrong with zero hour contracts but they are far from a homogenous entity and many of them do work for a lot of people.
Designed as a flexible solution to improving employment, they are easily exploited by organisations with heavy-handed bargaining power. Employees exhibit uncertainty over whether they will get any hours in the future at all, employers can have unreasonable expectations about when workers can make themselves available, and it can breed environments of hours depending on favouritism. They also have the capacity under zero hour contracts to ban employees from working anywhere else – something which becomes a real crunch to employees who can’t predict their future income. It adds pressure to workers financially be cause of lack of income, but also mentally because a refusal to do
work once can translate into a prolonged period of losing work because the employer opts to use someone that made themselves available on that occasion. It can also be stressful if a worker is allocated a shift but then has this shift rescinded at the last moment. Once
again, it is uncertainty that causes the issue and creates problems for the workers.
There’s even quite a clear correlation between some of the big-name users of zero hour contracts and low-cost products. Eighy per cent of Wetherspoons, ninety per of McDonalds and Sports Direct as well as large proportions of Burger King, Subway and Domino’s Pizza employees are on zero hour contracts.
Many of the problems aren’t necessary however. The hazards outlined above do not
represent the experiences of all zero hour contracts.
Some zero hour contracts provide flexibility to people with other commitments, most notably students. Students can often find work as a way of being able to keep them going through university, but they may want to avoid having to commit themselves to neither a lower or maximum level of work. The
flexibility of casual work has strong demand, the issue is in the balance of power.
There is precedent for this prior to the election. Last month saw McDonald’s offer all employees the chance to move off a zero hours contract if they wanted to. A variety of
fixed hour contracts could then be opted for with 4, 8, 16 and 30 hour shifts all made available to zero hour employees.
They made this offer on a trial-basis to 23 of their outlets and found that around 20 per cent chose to move to fixed hours. Though it is one trial, it is indicative that there is
a case for zero hours but there are gains to make from making them an option alongside contractual agreements. If McDonald’s made the same offer to all of its tens of thousands of zero contract UK employees, approximately 15-20 thousand could find themselves in a better working situation.
There is scope to go even further if an arrangement where a fixed hour contract was offered to someone on zero hours, but with the capacity to hear additional working
opportunities the same way the zero hours worker would too. If one of the biggest issues is the ability for employers to discriminate, then it’s also possible to use online software to make the allocation method more transparent.
There are a number of opportunities to reform the allocation of hours in employment situations without having to reduce the gains from flexibility enjoyed by both businesses and by workers. Prevent zero hour contracts from banning taking on other kinds of work. Stop them from being able to retract offers of work at the last minute, maybe.
But simply scrapping zero hour contracts is a play at gambling with about 3 per cent of the UK workforce. There are many businesses that would not be able to sustain their levels of employment if they couldn’t make use of zero hours.
Consequently, there would be many who would find themselves in more rigid working arrangements and many who might find they lose work entirely. Banning zero hour contracts is not the solution to poor working conditions. The solution is finding a way to make them work for everybody.