There is much talk of zero hour contracts (ZHCs) being abusive, but there are pros and cons in all schemes and ZHCs are no exception. Many employers simply want to have flexible working arrangements and are happy to agree the way forward with workers. Unfortunately some employers will exploit any loophole and this can lead to real employment injustice. The greatest likelihood of abuse is where a worker is required to be ready to work when required but is given no guarantee of work and no minimum pay in the event of a late cancellation. There is some evidence of poor practice, but it’s not as extensive as the recent hue and cry in the media would suggest. Recent research by the CIPD suggests that around 20% of zero-hours workers say they are sometimes or always penalised if they are not available for work. Almost 50% of these workers say they don’t get any notice or find out very late in the day that they are not required for work. But that means that around 80% are not penalised if they don’t want to work. We need to keep a sense of perspective.
The rising costs of employment, coupled with recent increases in traditional stop-gap areas like agency workers means that employers have to think creatively to manage to cover work without incurring prohibitive expense. Without any doubt employers need some form of flexibility in the way they run their businesses. There are also groups of individuals who don’t want to commit to long term work, but simply want to dip in and out to meet their needs and lifestyle. Where ZHCs are being used appropriately and workers are well and reasonably managed, these contracts provide flexibility that is a good alternative to traditional work patterns for both organisations and individuals.
There’s no legal definition of ZHCs. Whether it’s a consequence of this or whether any employers just don’t know the difference between employed status and casuals, there is considerable confusion. Some ZHC workers will be employed and will therefore accrue rights on that basis, including the right to complain of unfair dismissal after two years’ continuous service. Others are casual workers who have fewer employment rights, though they still have the right to statutory holiday and national minimum wage. However, such workers are not obliged to work unless they agree to do so.
Poor management is at the heart of the ZHC debate and not the contracts themselves. The drive should be to ensure that people who are employed on ZHC and required to be available at the employer’s demand are treated fairly if they make themselves available in response to that demand.
Before taking any steps to introduce ZHCs consider what you’re trying to achieve. How do you envisage this working? How much cover do you need? When do you need it? How are you going to go about recruiting the right people? How will you contact and book people on ZHCs to work? How much resource will you need to do this? Do you want to enter into employed contracts (I suspect not in most cases) or are you happy you keep it more casual? If the later, you might need a bigger pool of ZHCs in order to meet needs when they arise?
In summary rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater we need to ensure that employers who use ZHCs understand and apply them lawfully and in a responsible way. It’s a good idea to take professional advice so you can ensure you’ve thought through all the relevant issues before embarking along this road.
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