The issue of zero-hours contracts must not be forgotten

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By Benjamin Salmon, Second Year Politics and International Relations

Since 2015, the issue has largely faded into the backwaters of political life as rather greater challenges have hit the nation. But what exactly are zero-hours contracts, why did Ed Miliband call them an ‘epidemic’, and fundamentally, why must they be reformed?

Zero-hours contracts are agreements between employers and workers where the employer does not guarantee a minimum number of working hours and the worker is under no obligation to accept any work offered. This sounds like a fair, reciprocal arrangement and, for many in society, it is – especially well-off students without dependents like children.

Students can work, in generally low-skilled roles, for as many hours as the company will allow them and in return, they can maintain flexibility and be paid at least the minimum wage. They are also a great route for getting one’s foot in the door in industries like media, hospitality and events management.

In fact, I am in two of these contracts myself and am not very satisfied.

But away from these circles, zero-hours contracts mean unpredictable work, little legal protection from workplace harassment, often no paid holiday or sick leave and, usually, insecure income.

Those just getting by or those heavily burdened with dependents – single parents, new immigrants, home carers – often find the volatile nature of shift-taking, where employers may cancel one’s shift at any time, a barrier to sound financial planning and a hindrance to simply getting food on the table. When one has children to feed, clothe, and educate, these sorts of jobs are not conducive to creating a settled environment, especially when one could be the sole breadwinner in the household.

It is an active attempt to smooth out the unemployment rate through the creation of insecure, but readily available, work.

Insecurity also creates a culture of pressure to always be working, which employers often exploit by side-lining workers from being asked to do future shifts.

If you are never given any other shifts, this is an employer’s way of saying they do not want your work anymore, leaving many effectively unemployed – even if, in point of fact, the law says you are not. This is perpetuated through exclusivity clauses that mean workers cannot work for any other company whilst in the employment of one.

These contracts also offer little protection from harassers and bullies.

Workers cannot complain about misconduct to the HR department as easily as a fixed-contract employee can because they risk losing opportunities for future shifts and thus, effectively, one’s job. This can lead to long-term psychological problems and create and legitimate an institutional culture of bullying in the workplace. For example, the sexual harassment rate against people in zero-hours jobs is nearly one-third higher than those in fixed-term employment, yet they still have less real protection.

So should zero-hours contracts be scrapped, or at least heavily regulated as Mr Miliband would have liked?

There is no denying that they offer tangible benefits to many, including students. But their existence does not allow those on the edges of society much job security and, in many cases, the opportunity to break from a cycle of inequality and often poverty.

It is inherent in their make-up that these contracts will create employment uncertainty and a pressure to work. And this is no design flaw.

It is an active attempt to smooth out the unemployment rate through the creation of insecure, but readily available, work. In fact, Labour’s 2015 proposal, giving employees a full-time contract after working at least 12 weeks of regular hours, would have helped maintain employment figures whilst also supplying some form of job security to workers.

The continued growth of the gig economy, like it or not, will mean these jobs will become increasingly present, but scrapping them will not serve to help those looking for a better quality of life.

There needs to be a reform of the system and protections in place for those in low-skilled work. Otherwise, there is a risk Britain could become a nation of crippling financial and occupational insecurity.

Featured image: Flickr/@TaylorHerring

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