Always on call: the problem of zero hour contracts


Andrew Tromans is a History and Politics student at the University of Sheffield.

For many people the notion of a 9-5 job, Saturdays and Sunday for leisure and even basic employment rights such as maternity leave are just not a reality.  I am not talking about night-workers or people working in the emergency services, but people working in zero hour contract jobs.

Catering-staff-are-often-on-zero-hour-contractsWhat are zero hour contracts?

Zero hour contracts are an arrangement between an employer and employee, in which no set hours are given. Work is offered as and when the employer has a use for the worker. However, just as the employer does not have to guarantee work, by the same token an employee can turn down shifts.  Zero hour contracts are very typically used in the catering, cleaning and security industries.

The rise of zero hour economy

Zero hour contracts were first used in the UK during the recession of the early 1990′s. The aim was simple, for businesses to make efficiency savings by only paying for staff when they actually needed them. In an uncertain market and lean times the rationale seems clear. The number of people employed on zero hour contracts has doubled since 2005, with 161,000 people employed in zero hours jobs in June 2012. It is likely the recession and intermittent periods of sluggish growth have had a large impact on this rise of zero hour contracts.

MacDonalds Restaurants have made particular use of zero hour contracts and employs the majority of its 87,500 UK staff on this basis. One MacDonalds employee spoke out about his situation:

“Some weeks you’ll get more hours than you can work, on days that you can’t work – and some weeks you’ll be desperately looking for extra shifts because you’ve got no money.

“There is no law preventing zero hours contracts, but there should be. They’re not fair – they’re not right. They’re exploitative.”

Always on call

Zero hour contracts were largely unregulated before the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and the Working Time Regulations 1998. Prior to these acts, many misuse allegations circulated, with cases being reported where employees were made to remain physically present on their work premises but were not paid until they were needed. Although the National Minimum Wage Act did outlaw this specific form of labour abuse, workers on zero hour contracts still have plenty of misery to contend with. At present, zero hour contract staff do not enjoy the same privileges, such as maternity leave or sickness pay, that full-time staff do.

The contention often cited by workers on a zero hour contract is the unpredictability of their work. It is very much feast or famine, weeks can go by with little or no work and others workers can be given more shifts than they manage.  This is made worse by the fact that if an employer has a mind to, they can call people in or cancel shifts at short notice.  This lack of a secure income could make paying rent or a mortgage a monthly ordeal.

In addition to financial concerns it is important to ask what kind of impact do zero hour arrangements have on family and social life? One has to assume, that if a worker is waiting for a phone call to see if they are going to have a shift that day then making plans with family and friends is difficult. Critically, the irregularity of working patterns could very feasibly make childcare a total nightmare.

Of course workers are at liberty to turn down work if it does not suit them. However, given that zero hour contract staff are normally in “banks” – a pool of workers so that someone can always be called into work, workers may perhaps feel they have a diminished capacity to refuse work in case they are offered less in future.

Can zero hour contracts work?

Zero hour contracts don’t just have the capacity to cause havoc in personal lives but also big events. Take for example the Olympics. At least part of the reason for G4S’s manifest failure to supply enough security personnel for the games was due to the fact that their staff were casually employed.

It is clear that zero hour contracts make perfect business sense, because they allow for supply of labour that can be used only when necessary. But can zero hour contracts be made to work for everyone?

Perhaps if a few key principals were enshrined in employment law then zero hour contracts would be made fairer. First of all there should be a set minimum amount of time in which shifts can be offered and a worker can accept or decline in. A good figure might be 24 hours. Secondly employers should be mindful of significant other commitments in their employees’ lives (study, childcare), and perhaps these lifestyle factors could be noted during an interview. Employers should offer compensation to workers who have travelled a long way only to be sent home after a few hours.

These are only a few recommendations to try to redress the wildly distorted balance in zero hour contracts. It is up to the politicians and unions to do more.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/alex.swatton Alex Swatton

    Zero hours contracts are just another way companies are using to navigate around minimum wage legislation. Its a scandal to be honest, minimum hours is not the future of employment and I can only assume is being allowed so the unemployment figures can be massaged.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alex.swatton Alex Swatton

    Zero hours contracts are just another way companies are using to navigate around minimum wage legislation. Its a scandal to be honest, minimum hours is not the future of employment and I can only assume is being allowed so the unemployment figures can be massaged.

  • David Mullen

    Pre 1997 Labour pledged to make zero hours contracts illegal. Unfortunately Blair, Mandelson et al quietly dropped this to avoid upsetting their corporate puppet masters.

  • Traibabes

    My student daughter works as a waitress in out local Hungry Horse. Green King use this style of contract, so it meant that on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve, and New Years Day, when you would expect to be earning a decent wage for working these unsociable shifts, she earned just £18 for a 4 hour shift on Christmas Day, and the same single rate pay was paid for the rest of the shifts also. Most people wouldn’t even bother to get out of bed for that kind of money, but unfortunately, these kids are manipulated in such a way that if they were to leave, there are always queues of other youngsters just as eager to earn a few pennies of there own. And that is where things need to change, because people don’t have a choice but to accept these terms, or go without! It’s only going to get a whole lot worse once the new government legislation comes into play which reduce workers rights even further :-(

  • blarg1987

    Be interesting to see what would happen if they amended zero hours contracts so that employers would have to pay employees transport costs to work on top of their salary :).

  • blarg1987

    Be interesting to see what would happen if they amended zero hours contracts so that employers would have to pay employees transport costs to work on top of their salary :).

  • blarg1987

    Be interesting to see what would happen if they amended zero hours contracts so that employers would have to pay employees transport costs to work on top of their salary :).

  • blarg1987

    Be interesting to see what would happen if they amended zero hours contracts so that employers would have to pay employees transport costs to work on top of their salary :).

  • Newsbot9

    Be a little careful.

    I have, for instance, done three-hour weekly “shifts” on a zero-hour contract, when it was offered as a 10-week block. It paid £71 per hour, as it was postgraduate university teaching. (Heck, they pay the same for cover…which is a sweet deal)

    This is quite different to what’s being done with minimum wage jobs.

  • Patrick

    £71 per hour? That’s disgusting. There are pensioners struggling to heat their homes and you’re being paid in an hour nearly what they get in a week. People like you just leach off the rest of sociey.

  • Newsbot9

    Lol. Per contact hour. Do get it right, you do about 2 additional hours of work for every contact hour, and it’s teaching postgrads, which receives no public funds.

    Moreover, keep defending your “class-based right” to pay all workers minimum wage. Typical foreign 1%er, trying to make Britain poorer. And keep trying to undermine Universities and what they’re allowed to pay!

  • Patrick

    How funny that you stand up for freedom when it’s your salary at stake, but want to take away the rights of others to earn as much as they can.

  • Newsbot9

    You’re confusing me and you again.

    I have *nothing* against *earned* income.

  • Patrick

    But you do have a problem with capital. If I told you I earned £300k last year, of which I saved £200k, giving me capital of £1m in 5 years, that suddenly makes me an evil, greedy, 1% character. Yet, I’m not talking about being part of the nobility, where extreme wealth has been handed down over generations, or the lazy, idiot son of a rock star, I’m talking about the right to go out and earn as much money as one can, and to have the freedom of choice to save it, rather than squander it on flash cars and chunks of jewellery. This is no different in principle to someone earning £30k and saving £3k. It is the fundamental right of individuals to persue earned wealth. There may be a moral question of why I might earn ten times more than a teacher or a police officer, but that doesn’t make me an evil person. We simply persued different careers, and the market sets the remuneration of those respective careers.

  • Newsbot9

    No, you’re fighing your own chimeras again.

    Unearned income should simply be taxed higher than earned income, and inheritance of unearned income be, again, taxed.

    You are talking about being a rich person, end of story. The principle that you think you have a right to starve the poor because you’ve become rich…

    And right, you keep claiming that the “market” sets the remuneration, when it’s Capitalist. In a free market, paper shufflers wouldn’t have the sorts of pay multiples they currently have over the actual workers!

    Keep defending a growing concentration of wealth such as hasn’t been seen since the industrial revolution…

  • Patrick

    You have contradicted yourself. First you said you have “nothing against earned income” but when I tell you how much I earn, you object to it.

  • Newsbot9

    You’re inventing things again.

    I would, again, simply tax your investments with your savings at a higher rate than your salary.

  • Patrick

    But it is a responsible thing to save money for ones future than spend it all. Why would you want to penalise that? If you create even bigger disincentives to save then you make the problem worse.

  • Newsbot9

    If you can’t save, because you need to spend on basic food and shelter, and are punished for not doing so, what do you think happens? That’s right, the poor get poorer.

    It’s utterly unrealistic to think that the poor can afford to save.

  • Patrick

    I didn’t say that the poor can afford to save. That’s not the debate we are having. You said you want to tax savings, even more than presently. I said that that discourages people from saving. That is a fact.

  • Newsbot9

    Er no. I said tax *capital*. Savings are not taxed.

  • Newsbot9

    Er no. I said tax *capital*. Savings are not taxed.

  • Patrick

    “Simply tax your investments with your savings at a higher rate”

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Newsbot9

    Yes. Investments you make *using savings*. Sheesh.

    (Only a primary residence and associated and a pension with rates tied to average income would be immune…)

  • Patrick

    Why? If I want to use my savings to buys shares, it’s me that’s taking the greater risk with the money. I’m simply moving it from a safe asset class to a riskier asset class. What’s the rationale for that movement of funds attracting more tax?

  • Newsbot9

    Risk, right. Keep on defending your “right” to rip off workers. No, work should pay for everyone, rather than situation we’re headed rapidly for of nobody.

  • Patrick

    Oh dear, we’re back to the left wing hyperbole. I was hoping for a reasoned answer to my question.

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Newsbot9

    You think you’re spouting left wing hyperbole? No, you’re not. Stop kidding yourself.

    Keep arguing that work shouldn’t be enough to pay the for shelter, the bills and food though. It’s a great insight into your mindset.

    (Moreover, your deposits, given they’re over the guarantee, are NOT safe if they’re in British banks. So where offshore do you have them?)

  • Janeyoung

    Local authorities also use zero hour contracts when employing support workers for disabled children and young people. However, in some ways they work a little better here as continuity of worker and timetable is important for youngsters, especially those on the autistic spectrum, so the worker has the predictability of knowing that he or she will usually work with a certain child or young person at specific days and specific times. The lack of sick pay, however, is a problem, as obviously no family wants a support worker to come in to work if they have a bug, so sick days may need to be taken where in another line of work, where contagion isn’t such an issue, the worker might struggle to work despite ill health.

    My son does this kind of work, and I can’t see him being able to move out and set up a home of his own given the insecurity of pay etc. It works reasonably well for young single people, but the article is right about the effect on families of such an insecure and unpredictable arrangement.

  • Patrick

    Jesus.

  • Newsbot9

    He might be your god, but he ain’t mine.

  • LabanTall

    “if they were to leave, there are always queues of other youngsters just as eager”

    That’s it. “If you don’t fancy the work, there are plenty of others who will”.

    But given that the left supported the movement of millions of low-paid people here, they shouldn’t be surprised when the laws of supply and demand kick in.

    As Marx put it : “The main purpose of the bourgeois in
    relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as
    cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this
    commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it

    Maybe you should vote UKIP.

  • fred

    Achtung Juden!

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