The Demonisation of Zero Hours Contracts

zero hours contractsWelcome to my blog. In this blog I wanted to talk about zero hours and flexibility. It infuriates me when employment practices are dictated by over emotional and ill thought through media/public hysteria.

In recent years, I have been horrified by the demonisation of zero hours contracts. We live in a world where 75% of young workers say they want flexibility, where an increasing number of older staff are expressing an interest in home working or reduced hours, and where we expect by 2030 that up to 50% of our workforce will choose self-employment over employment. But then we hear of the perils and evils of the supremo of flexible contracts that could deliver so much of what we want . . . the zero hours contract.

Punitive. Taking advantage. Abusive. Unscrupulous. Are just a few of the milder adjectives I’ve heard expressed.

As far as I can see, given that I’ve been around in HR for 30+ years, what were formerly known as bank contracts, are now known as zero hours contracts, creating a contractual option for both employees who are seeking maximum flexibility and employers who value the opportunity to flex their workforce up and down. Where is the problem in that?

Of course, the problem only arose when a few unscrupulous employers messed it up for the rest of us. When those employers started imposing zero hours contracts on staff who actually wanted regular and often full-time work. When zero hours contracts were forced onto employees as a means of legally evading various employment costs and duties and when making a quick buck was put ahead of values and organisational longevity.

In the years when apple was still a fruit and shops weren’t allowed to open on a Sunday, zero hours (bank) contracts were successfully used as a means of creating a formal link between employees who had resigned or retired but who wanted to continue picking up the occasional shift and employers who valued being able to call on a group of people who were a known quantity to them. Mutual benefit.

In days gone by, when there were very few part time work opportunities in the marketplace, these were often valued arrangements, that served both parties well. So how have we come to the point where you are now viewed as the devil incarnate if you are an employer offering zero hours contracts? Media hysteria, short term memories and a few bad businesses would be my conclusion.

It’s the scourge of those businesses whose behaviour towards their staff is little short of immoral, resulting in the rest of us taking the hit when legislation or public sentiment drives a change in the law just because some people took advantage.

But rather than play the blame game, what can we do that changes this around? In my view, what we have been missing in recent years is more discussion about the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law. And I apply this thinking to both employers and employees.

Process and procedure advocates have forced out our advocates of common sense in the workplace and employment tribunals. But the government is slowly making a transition to the ‘spirit of the law’ in all things relating to payment of taxes, so perhaps employment practices can follow on behind, rather than simply banning contracts that have been misused by some?

For this to happen though it requires employees to reign in the outrage and hysteria and to recognise what value there is in the zero hours contract, recognising that it needs fighting for, not banning. Whilst at the same time, we all need to work together to root out those employers who lack the necessary integrity to run a business in today’s society and those employees who believe that flexibility should be all one way.

Thoughts, ideas, all welcomed as always! Let the debate begin…

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