Zero hours, zero benefits, zero enthusiasm. Why would anyone take a job on these terms?

The rise of zero-hours contracts: These figures from the Office for National Statistics may be showing only one-fifth of the picture, according to new research.

The rise of zero-hours contracts: These figures from the Office for National Statistics may be showing only one-fifth of the picture, according to new research.

The rise of the zero-hours contract must be deeply disturbing to all those with an interest in fair employment practices.

The arrangement is that an employee agrees to be available for work whenever required, but with no set number of hours or times of work specified. The employee is expected to be on-call at all times but is paid only for the number of hours that are actually worked.

There appears to be no pension scheme, no sickness cover, no holiday entitlement – no rights other than those laid down by health and safety regulations (which the government is trying to ditch) and the National Minimum Wage Act (also under threat from the Conservative-led government).

Also, the system is open to abuse by managers, who can use it to reward some employees (and the term is used in its loosest possible sense) with extra hours or punish others with fewer.

And how, exactly, is an employee supposed to be engaged in, and enthusiastic about, a job where they are treated as a disposable commodity, to be picked up and thrown away whenever it is expedient?

It seems possible that there is an argument in favour of zero-hours contracts – but only for employees who want to top-up another income stream; people who want occasional earnings and are flexible about when they work. The problem here is that it seems likely employers will want these people to work at times when it will be hard to meet the commitment.

For anyone else – including people who are unemployed, penniless, and need the certainty of a properly-constituted employment contract with set hours, pay and conditions, there seems to be no point in taking up such a contract at all. Yet they are proliferating across the UK.

Is the Department of Work and Pensions, through the Job Centre Plus network, forcing these conditions on jobseekers?

Such a situation might be a huge boost to employment figures, but it would also explain why average pay has fallen so drastically in recent years and the economy has failed – so abjectly – to reignite.

Today (Monday) it is being reported that more than a million UK workers are on zero-hours contracts – four times official estimates.

The BBC is reporting that 14 per cent of these could not earn a basic standard of living. If Job Centres are forcing people into these jobs, via the sanctions regime, this is scandalous. Perhaps it is permitted by law, but this would only mean that the government should have a duty to ensure that jobs which are taken under the threat of sanction are capable of providing this basic standard.

Worse still for the government is the allegation, in research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, that public sector firms – those with government contracts – are more likely to use zero-hours contracts than private companies.

This is particularly prevalent in education and healthcare.

And how is the benefits system affected by these contracts?

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese told the BBC: “Zero-hours contracts cannot be used simply to avoid an employer’s responsibilities to its employees.” But isn’t that exactly how they are being used? Don’t the number of people saying they can’t make ends meet, and the wider state of the economy, indicate exactly that?

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis seems to have got it right when he 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.

“The growing number of zero-hours contracts also calls into question government unemployment figures.”

Business secretary Vince Cable has ordered a review of the zero-hours contracts system, to take place over the summer. He played down fears of abuse, saying evidence was “anecdotal” and adding that “it’s important our workforce remains flexible” (in employment terms, this means all the power is with the employer, while the actual worker has to adapt to the circumstances foisted upon them).

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham called for zero-hours contracts to be banned, back in April this year.

It seems clear that they are unsafe and open to abuse. But would an all-out ban be appropriate?

Would it not be wiser for Job Centres to continue advertising them, but with no obligation to recommend them to jobseekers (and certainly no requirement to force anyone into applying for them), and with a requirement to warn anyone considering taking up such a position about the possibility that they will not be able to survive on the pay provided?

This might go some way to redressing the balance of power with employers; without the coercive power of the government supporting these contracts, they might try more traditional (and fairer) employment models.

This is a subject worth more examination. What are your thoughts?

21 thoughts on “Zero hours, zero benefits, zero enthusiasm. Why would anyone take a job on these terms?

  1. HomerJS

    My understanding is that zero hours contacts, and other jobs such as commission only, are jobs that job-seekers can’t be forced to take, for obvious reasons. Can’t confirm that though, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that change if it is true. I don’t think employers though would want to take on people who would be unhappy, resistant and might possibly sabotage the company even if only by reporting any illegal activity. I would have added ’employees who might be likely to take the company to court on an issue’ but I think the government has sorted out that one.

  2. Bill Kruse

    There’s also the cost to the taxpayer of continually reassessing the income of those on zero-hours contracts for benefits purposes. That’s yet another taxpayer subsidy to business. Where’s the outrage?

  3. Gaf

    “It seems clear that they are unsafe and open to abuse. But would an all-out ban be appropriate?”

    Probably not, because as you say, there are doubtlessly people out there in a position to benefit from them. But they should be kept out of Job Centres entirely. For one, these jobs just aren’t going to be of any use to the unemployed. For another, it isn’t hard to imagine the DWP issuing statements claiming that Jobseekers aren’t required to apply for them, while jobcentre staff still push them in order to meet their targets.

    1. HomerJS

      Very good points Gaf. I’ve just read another article about people on zero hours contracts and it does seem to be that the people who are in a position to benefit are those that don’t actually need a job.

  4. Nick Manning -James

    It depends on your skill set and the demand for your particular skills. In the past I have played two employers off against each other and dictated terms of work to my requirements, also working to suit myself. However the downside to this is no holiday entitlement, no future financial guarantee, no job security and problems getting or securing a mortgage. The only way for this to work in favor of the employee is to spread your net – hold at least a few zero contracts and be ruthless showing loyalty to nobody except yourself! If they want you especially at short notice make them pay for it. For being good at what you do deserves a payment premium – otherwise the old saying prevails ‘ pay peanuts and get monkeys ‘! Workers have to recognize and demand their true value.

  5. Dawn Tibble

    It sounds and looks like it is a ploy to rig the employment statistics. This is the mark of IDS to fool people into thinking the economy is recovery because more are in jobs. He did try to make a play with people suddenly finding work so therefore they must have be scivers before. More needs to be found out about the reasons people are taking these contracts. I believe workfare and sanctions do play a part in it.
    On another note, I believe employees are paid £1000 to take on immigrants by the EU?

    There are a lot of questions still need answering. I predict more lies and deceit by the government will be exposed.

  6. bookmanwales

    Beside the Zero hour contracts are those on minimum hour contracts. One big hardware retailer for example had numerous jobs advertised on an 8 hr weekly contract but “more hours may be required as and when ”

    We are rapidly falling to the Third world level of employment and employment rights.

    Once the Tories win the next election (which looks more likely with each passing day) then this fall will be completed. The welfare state will be completely abolished, the NHS will be completely privatised and insurance will be required to access it, Decent education will be completely privatised with minimum goals set for basic state schools as in the USA. Minimum wage will be abolished and statutory work holidays gone for good.
    Apathy will mean they “believe” they have a mandate for all this.

    Meanwhile, Labour say they will change nothing, the unions bicker with Labour and carry out government policies with a vengeance, working people are terrified of poverty and unemployment so fight each other, and, our esteemed leader sit back and rub their hands in glee.

    No amount of enquiry into zero hour contracts, regardless of outcome, will make the slightest difference.

    While I can afford my latest Iphone, 52″ flatscreen and get my subsidised second home I am not the least bit interested in what those lower down the chain have to do to eat. (metaphorically speaking, not me personally)

  7. John Mcnichol

    another nail in the coffin of our ever dwindling employee rights, along with draconian anti trade union laws and the workfare scam, we have become the worst place in the EU to work….the minimum wage and health and safety are next….shameful.

  8. elspethparris

    I’m one of the few who would appreciate a zero-hours contract, and did apply for one as relief worker in a homeless hostel. (Didn’t get it) I’ve got almost enough to live on and no entitlement to benefit – so to work ‘as and when’ would be fine for me. The basis of it however was important and could give some clue to relevant legislation: If contacted to request that I work,
    *I would have been one of a number of relief workers and could say ‘not this time’, of course, if I did that every time then they’d stop offering me work but there aren’t that many occasions I wouldn’t be available. *
    *I should be able to specify days/times when I’m never available (I’m a minister, I’m rarely available Sundays),
    *I would have had the same arrangements for holiday pay as a temp-worker – which has been fixed by previous legislation. 4 weeks minimum per year so it gets pro-rata’d for each week worked and the time stored so that I could be paid holiday pay when I wanted it. That does work for temps.
    *I don’t think I’d have had entitlement to even ‘statutory sick pay’ as that only applies if off sick when expected to work.

    All in all, I don’t think they should be banned but should be restricted in use. For such as ‘relief workers’ in any area of business there will always be a small number of people for whom this is appropriate. Perhaps the % of staff of any given type, on Zero hours, to be limited? And not to be working more than an average of say, 8 hrs per week – if more than that, then there should be a contract for those hours. If they need someone for 1 day each week then why not do a contract for it?

  9. Sylvia Walker

    my daughter works for a company who supply carers to elderly people in their own homes, last week she worked two and a half hours, this week she is working everyday from 7..30 in the morning till 8.30 at night, she has to pay for her own fuel for her car and she is all over the city. She has a 12 year old daughter who comes to me after school, she is lucky if her take home pay is £200 a week, how can anyone live on that?

    1. Edward

      I had an interview for a job supporting people with learning difficulties where you were expected to use your own vehicle and they were offering me 20 hours a week on minimum wage – at the interview I asked them how they expect me to pay for a vehicle on less than £95 per week which is what I would have left after tax and NI. They couldn’t answer my question. 🙂 Needless to say I didn’t get the job.

  10. Edward

    My wife worked on a Zero Hour contract which was when she was Tuped from one firm to another without being told as she thought she was still on a 26 hour week. Zero hours means you have to be available when they want you which means working continuously for 10 days in a row without a day off. Also working from 9.00 on a Sunday till 18.30 then being in work the next day at 6.00 am. Needless to say my wife was being bullied into working these kinds of hours. If you refuse to work these kinds of crazy hours then you will not be offered work and will suffer financially.My wife is now off sick and claiming ESA and DLA so the taxpayer foots the bill in the end :). Perhaps to stop this someone will decide to support those who are bullied at work.

  11. sjamiebunting

    “Anecdotal evidence” suggests that ex-public sector jobs are being turned into zero hours contracts by the privatization sharks. Among other things, younger people will not be able to put into stakeholder pensions, much less save the deposit for a mortgage. Trouble brewing …

  12. bookmanwales

    The next phase of workfare will include being available for immediate “casual work” this will take the form of either spending all day sitting in some workfare providers waiting room or, as in the case of dockworkers ,being told to line up outside some major factory or retail park somewhere.

    To claim benefit you will have to produce a ticket proving you were waiting for a job but were not picked, with a valid reason for not being picked i.e not dressed smartly enough will bar you from claiming,

    You may think this is extreme but the “casual work approach has already returned to the docks and one Food factory near me has a similar system already in place.. you ring before each shift to see if they need you.

    This will of course be administered by private “employment contractors” who will of course be paid by the government instead of paying jobcentre staff.

    Oh sorry they already have a “gangmasters department” set up.

    Of course it will be even better for gangmasters when those pesky petty employment laws such as minimum wage and maximum hours are all ended. No need now to exploit Eastern Europeans there will be a couple of million Brits to fall back on.

  13. che

    it is up to the employer to supply work and jobs, if there isnt any available, thats not the fault of the emplyee. We are are told to go out and find work, the bosses should do the same.

  14. jess

    “How many thousands do not know
    The hardships of a docker’s life;
    What hours and days he has to wait
    For work to keep his home and wife.
    Oft’ days and weeks he strives to hear
    The ganger call the name he owns.
    How hard he struggles to the front;
    But still is left ‘upon the stones’.

    At ay hour the calls are made,
    And oh! how patiently he waits
    Until at last his name is called,
    And he may enter through those gates.
    His long privations make him weak;
    Yet well he stifles down his moans,
    And struggles hard to work his best;
    But in the morn he’s ‘on the stones’.

    We know that some are well employed
    Who are possessed of youth and power;
    Yet, after working hard all day,
    They only get five pence an hour.
    But after youth and strength have gone,
    When age and work affect his bones
    Although long service he can prove
    He’s calmly left ‘upon the stones’

    Ah! who can wonder that he strives
    To gain an increase in his wage;
    To cry agaginst abuses great
    That fill his heart with grief and rage.
    And, by the great concessions made,
    The Dock Committee surely owns
    The docker had some grievous wrongs
    That keep him out ‘upon the stones’

    Al points are granted now, we know,
    Except the time at which to start;
    And, now they can so far agree,
    Why, surely each can give a part.
    November’s shorter days are near
    At which the docker truly groans;
    So start the Winter with the rise,
    And take them all from ‘off the stones’.
    G.P.; First printed East End News, Sept 17th, 1889
    repr C. Searle (Ed.) Bricklight, 1980

    The poem was first printed towards the end of the London Dock Strikes of 1888-9. The two cociliatory verses at the end of the poem suggest it may not have been written by a docker.

    But the first three are a pretty accurate description of what life was like for a docker, and their dependents, under the ‘call-on’, or ‘casual’ system. The great social surveys of the 19thc, Mayhew and Booth identified ‘underemployment’ rather than ‘unemployment’ as one of the great social evils of the age.

    “As early as the 1850s, Henry Mayhew’s investigation of ‘London labour’ had pointed to low wages, sweating, and seasonal and casual labour as the primary causes of chronic poverty. However, the view that the demoralization of the poor was primarily the result of indiscriminate charity was not seriously challenged until the 1880s. Above all, it was with Charles Booth’s ‘Poverty Surveys’ of London that factors of employment were used systematically to explain poverty. Booth’s surveys reveal that the condition of a large proportion of the families in, or destined for, pauperism can be explained because their prin cipal wage earners receive very low wages, or because they don’t work regularly, i.e., they are casual labourers. Of those that don’t work regularly, this is either because they can’t find regular work, or they have become physically… incapable of working regularly.
    Unemployment and Government: Genealogies of the Social, William Walters. Cambridge, 2000

    This is what ‘zero-hours contracts are about. Not ‘flexibility of working’ as some would have people believe.

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