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Zero-hour contracts – more flexibility or just an insecure working practice?

By Gabriele Kaier, 05.10.2016, Approx. 3 min reading time.

On Monday, October 1st, Theresa May announced an independent review of modern employment and hired the former head of Tony Blair´s policy unit, Matthew Taylor, to head a review of workers’ rights and practices, which will try to address concerns that millions are stuck in insecure and stressful work. Taylor will examine the particular problem […]

On Monday, October 1st, Theresa May announced an independent review of modern employment and hired the former head of Tony Blair´s policy unit, Matthew Taylor, to head a review of workers’ rights and practices, which will try to address concerns that millions are stuck in insecure and stressful work. Taylor will examine the particular problem with job security in Britain that affects millions of people. What is a zero-hour contract, how many people are on these contracts and why are they controversial?

What are zero-hour contracts?

This kind of contract allows employers to hire staff without guaranteeing them any work. The employee has to work the shifts offered, but there is no minimum amount of work that they are assured of getting. That means, if restaurants, shops or factories are not busy, staff can be told, not to come into work and they receive no pay. They have none or close to none of the rights and security that other employees have. The research by the TUC shows that average weekly earnings for zero-hours workers are just £188 while those of permanent workers are £479. In addition, 39% of zero-hours workers earn less than £111 a week – the qualifying threshold for statutory sick pay – compared to 8% permanent employees. The Resolution Foundation indicated that more than two out of three adult contract workers spent more than a year employed on a zero hour contract. The foundation argued that legislation should be introduced to give protections for workers who have been on a zero hours contract for over a year who work regular hours.

How many people are on these contracts?

Zero-hour contracts having risen by 20% since the September 2015. According to the National Statistics there are currently more than 900.000 people in the UK on these contracts, according to the National Statistics. They account for up to for 3%, but this might be soon changing.

Criticism of zero-hour contracts

People who have zero-hour contracts cannot rely on receiving a set amount of pay, which makes it difficult for them to plan their finances and future. There are stories of workers having to be available seven days a week at short notice, having their hours cut for refusing shifts or falling out with management, or worse. The so-called ‘flexibility’ of these contracts is far too one-sided: Staff without guaranteed pay have much less power to stand up for their rights. They often feel afraid to turn down shifts in case they fall out of favour with their boss.

The line of the Government

The government’s line is, that these contracts are an important part of flexible working and 70% of those on them, especially students, are happy with them. However, soon that could change as Theresa May has promised to tackle corporate excess.

Banning zero hours contracts outright?

Some students and individuals who have caring responsibilities genuinely prefer the flexibility , but many workers on zero contracts need more stability, reliable hours and greater protection.  
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