SQ Magazine

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COMMENT: We shouldn’t look to ban zero-hours contracts

Posted on Thursday, 14 November by

Vince Cable Zero-Hours

‘You will not be working this week ☺’ reads an employer’s text message to a worker on a zero-hours contract (ZHC). Unlike conventional arrangements that guarantee an employee a fixed number hours of work a week, ZHCs guarantee – you guessed it – zero hours of work a week.

Sounds like a pretty raw deal; why would someone agree to work for an employer that won’t guarantee them any hours? The secret is in the fact that both players in the employment relationship, employer and employee, can respectively offer or accept work as and when it suits them. They’re both empowered. It’s this empowerment that makes a ZHC perfect for a student. That’s the theory, at least.

In reality, the employment relationship under a ZHC isn’t quite that straightforward. Complexities arise from the fact that there is no requirement for an employer to justify to an employee their discretionary decision to offer or withdraw hours. This leaves room for unfair distributing of employment opportunities. It leaves the door open for employers to reward employees with whom they have strong personal loyalties with more hours while punishing workers who do not enjoy such relationships for one reason or another.

As a student worker, the flexibility offered by ZHCs could work if we exclude the influence of favouritism on employers’ allocation of hours.”

Curiously, it would be interesting to see whether an increase in the use of ZHCs over the last couple of decades positively correlates with levels of boss brown-nosery in the ZHC workplace. On a serious note, there can be no doubt that a scenario such as this – where succeeding in workplace politics is essential not just to enjoying a good quality of employment, but is essential to being employed at all – is wholly unacceptable.

To throw another spanner in the works, much of the employment rights debate takes place on a zero-sum landscape; think of it as a seesaw. Gains in empowerment or flexibility, for example, experienced by one partner in the employment relationship usually come at the expense of the other partner. Nothing in life is free. Someone’s got to pay. As a student worker, the flexibility offered by ZHCs could work if we exclude the influence of favouritism on employers’ allocation of hours. As the sole breadwinner of a family, though, that same flexibility would not greeted so warmly. Yes, the nature of the cost is the same as that of a student, but the breadwinner values it differently.

Why? Because ZHCs represent a total reversal of the burden of risk found in a conventional fixed-term contract. Whereas the employer bears unavoidable risks involved a fixed term contract, such as overstaffing, the ZHC breadwinner bears the risk not being offered enough hours to pay the bills. It is here that we see that employee empowerment isn’t an just abstract luxury to be enjoyed by only for the sake of convenience; employee empowerment puts rooves over heads and food on tables. This makes ZHCs a real cause for concern.

In light of all this, should we be looking to ban ZHCs altogether? Not quite. At least, not quite yet. At a time when businesses are struggling to recover from this massive economic slump, we’ve got to be pragmatic. The balance sheets of many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are particularly fragile and the fires from many of their bellies, the animal spirits, have been temporarily extinguished by the downturn. SMEs, and the economy as a whole, need a stimulus to facilitate the grand transition from bust to boom. Like it or not, ZHCs, with their ability to minimise the risk burden on business, might just fit the bill.

For now, employment by emoticon, for all its faults, has got to be an option on the table. The time to consider the prohibition of ZHCs isn’t now. That debate is for another day. Today, we’ve got to debate how we can best work with the unique contracts, exploit their strongest assets, and minimise the unfairness and exploitation that they give rise to because, today, families are feeling the pinch and many SMEs are struggling to grow. It is this that makes the zero-hours contract debate more important now than it has ever been.

Stay up to date with the zero-hours debate with us as it develops.

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Josh Babarinde

Josh Babarinde

20-year-old student from Eastbourne studying BSc Government at LSE. Actively collaborates on tackling issues involving the youth of the area alongside local Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Lloyd.

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