Eight Hours

The Zero Hours Contract debate rumbles on.

Are these contracts about flexibility and choice, or are they a race to the bottom? Are they about coffee shops and MacBooks, or exploitative and a symbol of a two-tier workforce?  Are they the dark side of the gig economy?

You can find arguments and opinion to support both frames of reference.

The answer is that they are probably both, depending on your personal circumstances and experiences.  For some, they equal freedom and flexibility.  For others, the best that they can get.

But Zero Hours Contracts are only part of the story.  The rest of the narrative is about low paid, low hours work – whatever the contractual status.

Now anyone who has every used a job alert service via a job board will know that their algorithms are…. interesting.  As a result of a request to receive notifications for new HR roles, I’ve recently been sent information on roles for financial accountants, software developers and chefs.  Some of which were in France.  Someone in my timeline recently commented that the criteria for receiving a notification from some job boards amounted to nothing more than ‘do you have an email address and are you alive?’

One such recent notification caught my eye….for all the wrong reasons.

It was for a leading retailer.  Paying the national minimum wage.  For eight hours each week.

Now you might think that there is nothing wrong with an eight hour per week contract.  It’s better than a Zero Hours one perhaps.  There are plenty of people who might value eight hours of paid employment.  A student looking to work whilst studying.  Someone seeking a second job to top up their income.  The only problem that I could see was exactly when the eight hours were taking place.  Because it could be anytime at all.  The shop was open 12 hours each day, seven days per week.  And the role required total flexibility – actual shifts notified on a weekly basis.  Applying for, and accepting, a position meant agreeing to working those hours whenever.

What would this mean in practice for the successful applicant?  Less than £60 per week, before deductions.  A limited ability to secure other work around that contact. An inability to plan, arrange childcare, make any advance arrangements.  Waiting on a whim.

This isn’t flexibility and choice.  This is barely a weekly food shop for most families.

There are no good reasons that I can think of that a major retailer could not, with some planning and foresight, make this a fixed set of hours or days, or at least offer reasonable parameters or some certainly.  It smacks of lazy management.  There is something just a little arrogant about it too.

I can’t think what it would be like to be employed in this way.  Wondering if there will be any overtime this week.  Wondering if this is the week that your boss will give you a shift that you just can’t get childcare for.  When exactly your hours will fall, if there is any other way to increase your income.

While we debate concepts like meaningful work, workplace democracy, employee engagement and all of that people stuff, let us also look in our own back yards.

Do the jobs, and their design, where you work, allow your employees the basic dignity of both living and working? Or does the way that the work is organised cause stress and uncertainty for the people that undertake it?   Do those jobs and their design enable both parties…. or just the organisation?

When we have a resourcing requirement, when we start drafting that job description and advert, we need to think not only about the needs of the organisation, but the needs of the individual who will be doing the work.

Contracts have many implied terms, amongst all the express ones.  Maybe it is about time that humanity become one of them.




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.