chrismceleny's Blog

Zero Hours contracts – a short practical solution to stop exploitation 


Zero hours contracts are very much in the centre of the current general election campaign. The very thought of a zero hours contract is now something society frowns upon, they are very much now a taboo. However to be balanced it’s worth noting that zero hours contracts were an integral part of change initiatives across the country in the private sector since 2008. 

Of course the fact that people on a zero hours contract are less likely to be trade union members than those on “normal” permanent employment contracts is an arguement for another day. There is though a clear link between change iniatives implementing zero hours contracts in workplaces to weaken collective bargaining agreements. 

From the employers point of view there are clear benefits – note this is not an endorsement. An employer can have an employee work hours that suit the business and this means when there is a lack of demand on workload the employer can simply reduce the employees hours. This example is where exploitation does occur and legislation is required. 

From the employees point of view should there be a blanket ban on “low hour” contracts if they actually suit the employee? Students, people working second jobs in bars etc may be happy with an agreement to only work a minimal amount of hours in a week. An absolute real example is your local social club that may have a function one week and need an extra member of staff but the next week there’s not a requirement. 

The key to the debate is indeed the term exploitative. By legislating to prevent exploitation we can be left with flexible working that suits both an employer and the employee. 

How do we do that of course is the vagueness around the current debate. It’s the reason we only hear sound bites and no actual ideas.

It’s a debate not too dissimilar to the treatment temporary workers endured before tougher regulation was brought in and in fact many still have to put up with today.

I believe the answer lies by looking at the EU working time regulations and legislation on temporary workers. The solution is already there. 

If I use my own example I can better explain the solution. Believe it or not but once upon a time I was young and worked pushing trollies for a supermarket chain sadly no longer with us. I was on a 4 hour contract but that is basically as good as a zero hour contract. As you would expect I would normally work 16 to 24 hours a week. However during exams I could say I only wanted to work 4 hours that week. That suited me but of course it didn’t pay as much. Also despite working an average of 16-24 hours a week annual leave and sick absence would be calculated on me only working 4 hours a week. Therefore by looking to the working time regulations if we could put in place protection for employees that if they were on leave their pay entitlement should be based on the average of hours worked over a 16 week period. Therefore no picking up 20 hours of pay every week but getting none when you take a weeks leave if you are on a zero hours contract.

Furthermore protection needs to be put in place to ensure zero hours contracts are not bypassing laws on temporary workers. I believe that if an employee works a consistent number of hours every week over a 16 week period then they should be entitled to a contract that reflects how many hours they work. Without this protection of course the employer wouldn’t need to pay annual leave and more than likely avoids redundancy payments employees could potentially be entitled to.

However it must be accepted that flexibly is a requirement of employers will want in certain situations. To mandate that employers must offer a certain fixed minimum hourly contract is a one size fits all approach that simply won’t fit. So I think I’ve provided a simple solution that will protect employees – which I’m sure many have already thought of – but there still needs to be a lot of work put into how the small business sector can sustain this.