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Zeroing in on Zero Hours Contracts?

According to the Office for National Statistics, over 900,000 employees in Britain are currently employed on zero-hours employment contracts. Zero-hours contracts often crop up in the news, and it’s fair to say that they’ve gotten something of a bad name – often not without good reason. Particularly with the rise of the gig economy, zero-hours contracts and other means of securing peoples’ labour without too much commitment have become very popular with some employers.

None of this is to say that the situation is settled, however, and some are now taking action to offer alternatives to their employees. McDonald’s, for example, recently offered fixed-hours contracts to its 115,000 zero-hours employees (according to the BBC, around 20% of employees at the Golden Arches have chosen to take the fixed-hours option. We certainly hope they’re lovin’ it).

On the political front, with a general election once again on our doorstep, the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto includes a pledge to ban zero-hours contracts. The Liberal Democrats, while not planning to ban them, have pledged to create a formal right for zero-hours employees to request fixed contracts instead. The Conservative Party manifesto, on the other hand, is silent on zero-hours contracts themselves, but nevertheless emphasises the importance of protecting those working in the gig economy – a broad statement of policy to be sure, but one that arguably wouldn’t rule out future action on zero-hours contracts.

In October 2016, the government appointed Matthew Taylor, former policy chief to Tony Blair, and Chief Executive of the Royal Society of the Arts to lead a review of employment practices. Taylor has previously suggested improvements to zero-hours contracts including the payment of premium wages to zero-hours employees. As for the review, the deadline for the submission of evidence passed earlier this week, meaning that a final report shouldn’t be too far away. While the full results of the review have not yet been published, it is believed that Taylor will recommend a right for zero-hours employees to request fixed-hours contracts instead.

With such an emphasis on the negatives of zero-hours contracts, then, it may at first appear that the benefits are all one-sided, favouring only employers. While it is true that many employees prefer the certainty and security that zero-hours contracts simply can’t offer, there are those who like the flexibility that they provide. Indeed, according to a 2013 study (updated in 2015) by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, many zero-hours employees were happy with the arrangement and more content than their permanently-employed counterparts. Among the benefits, zero-hours contracts enable workers to take on a more diverse variety of work instead of being limited to one specialism or department. In other cases, they may facilitate a better work/life balance – ideal for those professionals that want to focus their energies on their families as well as their offices.

There is no question that zero-hours contracts have been used unfairly, and one may even be led to question whether their recent surge in popularity may have been buttressed by a government happy to see unemployment figures drop – even if the reality is that some of those who are “employed” have no work to do; but it is difficult to argue that the solution is simply to get rid of what can – when properly used – be a beneficial employment relationship for both employers and employees alike. What may be the better option for employers, then, is to offer employees a choice.

The future of the zero-hours contract may currently be a little uncertain; but for now at least, when used fairly and in the right circumstances, both employers and employees can benefit from their flexible nature. What’s more, thanks to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, since 26th May 2015, exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts have been unenforceable, making them somewhat fairer than perhaps they once were.

To find out more about zero-hours contracts and to see whether they might have a place in your business, take a look at our Employment templates:

Zero Hours Contract
Zero Hours Policy
Zero Hours Employment Offer Letter
Casual Workers / Zero Hours Comparison

Does your business use zero-hours contracts? Perhaps you’re a professional that is on a zero-hours contract? We want to hear your thoughts. Not all zero-hours contracts deserve the bad rap, but with the election just around the corner, they’re in the spotlight again. Would you like to see them stick around as they are, reformed with restrictions designed to protect employees, or eliminated altogether?

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