Zero hours contracts – not always a bad thing?

You may have heard a lot about ”zero hours contracts” in the last few months, be that in the mainstream media, the business press or even professional publications and Parliamentary questions. They have generally been portrayed as a “bad” thing, but is that really the case?

Certainly the TUC have raised concerns about how these contracts are being used by some businesses, where they believe that workers are being unfairly exploited and the employer is avoiding its obligations.  Typically this has tended to be in the retail and hospitality sectors where senior managers argue that tight cost margins and peaks and troughs in customer demand leave them with few other options.  Critics have said that the flexibility that this type of contract offers the employer, doesn’t necessarily give the same flexibility to the worker. Examples being cited include workers having to be available at short notice, even for anti-social working hours, and being deliberately penalised (by not being offered more work) if they turn down a shift.

For some workers these types of arrangements do cause them huge problems. Be it having an unreliable and unguaranteed income, or having little control when they work and trying to balance this with family commitments.  Certainly trying to combine several zero hours contracts to try and generate a reasonable income can be impossible.

However for others this causes less of a problem. This could be because they already have some other form of paid work that guarantees them an income and this helps to “top up” their earnings to a better level. It could be be that they are a student or are semi-retired and don’t want to actually work too many hours, aren’t solely dependent on this money to live and are happy to work “as and when”.

Perhaps it comes down to what type and level of income and what degree of certainty people need?  If you know that, as a student, for one week a year you will earn money by working as part of the Graduation Week team, then you can plan your life and finances accordingly. For the university or college they know that they have a cohort of people who are willing to work flexibly during Graduation Week and can ask them to work as and when needed. If both sides are clear on this and it’s a mutually satisfactory arrangement, where is the problem?

Interestingly the recently published Taylor Review makes some similar distinctions between the “bad” and “acceptable” types of Zero Hours contracts. Certainly the recommendation about allowing people the right to request defined, regular hours (albeit it after 12 months) has to be a good thing. Equally the recommendation that those on  Zero Hours contracts should receive at least a higher rate of the National Minimum Wage to compensate for the uncertainty of their work, has merit too. Whether companies choose to do anything about this is another matter….

At the moment the recommendations from the review are just that – recommendations. We wait to see if the government decides to do anything about them and “encourage” employers to adopt them. Watch this space.