The trials and tribulations of ‘zero hours contracts’…
Meet Agostinho, someone I have been working with since June. Having been made redundant in his native Portugal, Agostinho came to the UK in search of work. He enrolled with a cleaning company working up to 60 hours a week. Six months into the job, Agostinho was mugged, had his glasses smashed and left him unable to work. He received no support from his employer and soon had to move out of his accommodation onto the street. By the time he had been able to repair his glasses the employer accepted him back, but offered him an average of just three hours work a week. The reason why? Agostinho happened to be one of the 250,000 people in the UK on a zero hours contract.
The plight of people like Agostinho has led to a national debate on the pros and cons of zero hours contracts with passions riding high in both camps. Some claim they provide flexibility for both employers and employees alike, whilst improving the competitiveness of business in Britain. So, zero hours contracts equals a highly flexible labour market and it is precisely for this reason that makes the UK such an attractive proposition for foreign investors; this is in stark contrast to some of our closest neighbours – France, for example, which has some of the most rigid employment laws in Europe.
On the other hand, there are many who feel that the use of the zero hours contracts, with their lack of guaranteed work, and which bind people indefinitely to their employer to ensure any form of job stability, can lead to exploitation as (some) employers squeeze as much as they can out of their workforce with little regard for their wellbeing. A case in point was raised by The Guardian (28th July 2013), which reported on Sports Direct’s claim that its full time staff were to receive bonuses of up to £100,000; reading the article it becomes clear that 90% of its 20,000 employees were on zero hours contracts and ineligible for sick or holiday pay – or bonuses.
I think it would be churlish to banish zero hour contracts; for some they do offer the flexibility they require. However, all too often we, in the Employment Team, have to deal with clients who have unwittingly signed up to zero hours contracts with little or no understanding of the implications it will have on their benefits. Fluctuating hours can play havoc with the amount Jobseekers Allowance and Housing Benefit people receive. Housing Benefit can be a particular problem – all too often lack of communication leads to support being stopped, putting people at risk of running into rent arrears and even eviction. There needs to be clearer information on the impact of zero hour contracts and it is vital employers fully explain their terms of employment. Better communication is a small price to pay for ensuring employment stability for the most vulnerable people.
Oh, and in case you are wondering what happened to Agostinho… thankfully we were able to introduce him to Pret a Manger (which does not use zero hour contracts) and he has moved off the street and into a job with an employer who does care about their staff.