Hoo-ha, hullabaloo and zero-hours contracts

So the zero-hours contract debate rumbles on. It’s the hoo-ha of the week, month, whenever. It is turning into an availability cascade.

An availability cascade is, according to that font of everything that is Wikipedia, a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of certain kinds of collective belief. The collective belief in this case being that zero-hours contracts are a very bad thing. Or according to Ed Miliband, an ‘epidemic’. When an availability cascade gets going, the idea gains rapid currency and an upward spiral begins. We hear and hear through the media, and we begin to accept that thing we hear as reality, when it may instead be mere belief or opinion, or just nothing much at all. The more people that believe it, the more people that believe it. Everyone wants to agree with all of the people that believe it. Critical thinking or analysis of the data disappears amongst the hullabaloo. And these beliefs live on, even when evidence to the contrary is presented.

Zero-hours contracts are much criticised. The Scottish Affairs Committee recently published a report described them as unbalanced, leaving the employee ‘in fear of dismissal, denied access to due rights of employment, and in some cases, earning less than the minimum wage’. Strong stuff indeed. Although the report appears to be heavy on the views from the trade union side of the fence, which might be ever so slightly relevant.

Taking the research over the rhetoric for a moment, there are around a million people on zero-hours contracts in the UK. Less than a quarter of employers report that they engage employees on these contracts and for those that do, it amounts to about 19% of their workforce (CIPD Research Report, November 2013).

Labour indicate that they plan to amend the law on zero-hours contracts, to among other things, ensure that employees have clarity from their employer about their employment status, have the right to request a contract with a minimum amount of work, be free to work for other employers and have an automatic right to a fixed hours contract after 12 months. Some of these suggestions might be easy to implement. Some of them could have very unintended consequences. What would stop the unscrupulous employer, given the two year’s service requirement for bringing an ET claim, simply dismissing the employer at the 12 month mark, for example?

Going back to the CIPD research for a moment, 60% of zero-hours workers already can work for other employers. Over half don’t want to work more hours than they are already receiving. Others espouse the benefits of zero-hours contracts.

Often in both life and organisations, there will be the few that cause issues for the many. There will always be an employer that breaks the law. There will always be employers that will exploit, discriminate, manipulate, or plain don’t care about employee engagement and all of the fluffy shiny stuff and just sweat their assets. This is happening with zero-hour contracts as it is with other aspects of the employment relationship. But legislation is not always the answer. There has been legislation on equal pay for over 30 years, and that is still a problem for the solving.

Before we decide if legislation the answer to the zero-hours contract issue, we must first ask if it is an issue at all; are we trying to solve a real problem? Some evidence of poor practice does not necessarily mean we need something new on the statute books. Because what we have here might be an availability cascade. It might be the latest bandwagon. Or it might be a union friendly sound bite.

Public opinion and hoo-has are a poor reason to make law. And the heat of the debate is the wrong time to make it. We don’t need a reactionary piece of legislation that will be hard to enforce and do little but generate case law. Mind you, maybe it might go some way to addressing the drop in employment tribunal cases.

Assuming anyone can afford to bring the claim of course.

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