May 21 2024
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Zero-sum game

Zero-sum game

In the wake of a flurry of press and media reports of the growing trend for NHS Trusts to employ ‘key clinical staff’ on so-called zero-hours contracts, under which workers have no guaranteed hours or times of work, last week three Merseyside MPs – Alison McGovern, George Howarth and Luciana Berger – launched an investigation into the exploitative use of such contracts.

As noted by another Labour MP, the polymath Tristram Hunt, such contracts first became common in the late 1980s and 1990s, but until relatively recently were ‘the preserve of low-paid sectors like catering or security. McDonald’s employs the vast majority of its 87,500 UK staff on these terms.’   However, it is clear that a growing number of employers are now using such contracts ‘as a way of avoiding proper employment regulations [and] since temporary and agency workers acquired full employment rights in 2010, it is estimated that over half of all companies that used them have switched to zero-hours contracts.’

According to the First Findings of the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study (PDF, WERS), published in January, the percentage of workplaces with some employees on zero-hours contracts doubled between 2004 and 2011, to 8%, and Acas has also noted ‘a sharp increase [in the use of such contracts] in recent years.’  And, according to the public services union, Unison, within the NHS ’this trend is taking place in areas traditionally vulnerable to zero hours arrangements, such as cleaning, but [is] also hitting new areas, such as cardiac services, physiotherapy, psychiatric therapy, and hearing services.’

Unfortunately, ‘zero-hours contract’ is not a coded issue under our case recording system, so we do not have any statistics to show any increase in the number of cases dealt with by Citizens Advice Bureaux.  But anecdotal evidence from CAB advisers suggests a marked increase in recent years, and the social policy evidence from bureaux demonstrates the detrimental impact on often vulnerable workers.

  • Gavin, a 34-year-old man who sought advice from Greenwich CAB in February 2012, had worked as a security guard for three years, during which time he had routinely worked 48-hour weeks, and been paid £8.50 per hour.  But in May 2011 the security company he worked for had replaced his contract with a zero-hours contract, and since that time he had worked only occasional hours.  Gavin told the CAB that he believed this was because the company was recruiting new security guards from the local Jobcentre Plus, and paying them just the then National Minimum Wage rate of £5.93 per hour.
  • Vicky, a 28-year-old married woman who sought advice from Isle of Wight CAB just last month, had given up a job to take a housekeeping job at a local inn, on the understanding that she would work 16 hours per week.  However, she has been working only 11-14 hours per week, and when she had queried this had discovered that she is on a zero-hours contract.  Vicky is now finding it difficult to make ends meet.
  • Dominic, a 29-year-old single man who sought advice from Norwich CAB in August 2012, had been working full-time on a zero-hours contract for the local outlet of a national pizza delivery company for the past two years, but had only ever received five days’ paid holiday, despite having raised the matter repeatedly with the store manager.
  • Kathleen, a 39-year-old single woman who sought advice from Chelmsford CAB in December 2012, was working on a zero-hours contract at the local outlet of a national fast food chain.  She reported that the store manager texts the employees between 8pm and 9pm each day to tell them what – if any – hours they can work the next day, and they have to text back accepting or declining.  However, anyone who declines goes to the bottom of a rota, and may not be offered any work for up to two weeks.
  • Maxine, a 24-year-old single mother who sought advice from Pendle CAB in October 2012, was working on a zero-hours contract for a local care home. Due to large fluctuations in her hours worked and therefore monthly income, Maxine was finding it difficult to budget and had built up Council Tax arrears of some £500, for which she had recently received a court summons.

Such precariousness and exploitation is the price that many workers now pay for employers to have, in the words of Acas, ’a pool of people who are ‘on-call’ and can be used when the need arises.’  In short, zero-hours contracts are yet another unfortunate element of the zero-sum game that we know and love as Britain’s ‘flexible labour market’.

That said, given that many workers are happy to work on a zero-hours contract, it is not immediately obvious what form – other than an outright ban – the policy solution to such precariousness and exploitation might take.  So, if you’ve got an idea, please do share it using the ‘comment’ box below.

And, if you are reading this and you happen to be on employed on a zero-hours contract, please do tell the Merseyside MPs about your experience by completing their simple online survey.