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August 9, 2013 / politicsbitesize

Zero-hour Contracts

_69122708_how_are_people_emplyed_624_v2In the early 1990s zero-hour contracts were introduced to the jobs market and since then this method of employment has risen.  According to figures released in July 2013 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) some 250,000 workers in the UK were estimated to be on zero-hour contracts.  However, a detailed survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that the figure is probably closer to one million.

Zero-hour contracts have traditionally been used in the hotel, retail, catering and leisure industries, but further examination highlights a rise in education and healthcare workers facing this type of employment.  Under such contracts, employees agree to make themselves available for work as and when required, but have no guaranteed hours or shift patterns.  Although these contracts meet the terms of the Employment Rights Act 1996 by providing a written statement of the terms and conditions of employment, they do not oblige the employer to provide work for the employee, or for the employee to accept the work offered.

It is this flexibility that some workers find ideal whilst others discover that they struggle to make ends meet.  For example, some retired people and students who wish to work occasionally consider this type of employment perfect for their needs.  However, there are a high proportion of workers who aren’t suited to zero-hour contracts because their income needs exceed what is provided, or who have been transferred to such working conditions without consultation.

The unions in the UK have criticised the practice as one that diminishes the rights of employees and causes disruption to family life caused by frequent short-notice calls to work.  Unison suggests that this type of employment is, ‘insecure, stressful and makes budgeting impossible’. It adds that, ‘people are afraid to complain for fear offers of work might dry up’.  Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said, ‘the vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain’.  They have called for this method of employment to be banned.

In response to concerns over the use of zero-hour contracts, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has been leading a review since June.  He told the BBC, ‘I think at one end of the market there is some exploitation taking place but pointed out that in many cases the level of flexibility offered by the contracts suited employees. Mr Cable will decide in September whether or not to hold a formal consultation on the issue.


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