Zero-hours contracts have long been a hot topic, and with less than 30 days until the general election the issue is again in the spotlight. There are an estimated 1.4 million zero-hours contracts in the UK, with “zero-hours” workers working on average 25 hours a week. 58% of zero-hours workers have been with their employer for more than a year. Zero-hours contracts are especially common in the public and third sector, but are used throughout the workforce. Household names such as Sports Direct, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld reportedly have a high proportion of staff on such contracts.

Zero-hours contracts are not a new phenomenon, but their use is becoming more widespread. In recent years these contracts have been demonised by the press and campaign groups, arguing that they destabilise and ‘casualise’ the workforce. Politically, there is some cross-party consensus on tackling the abuses of particular types of zero-hours contracts, but what specifically does each of the three main parties plan to do to regulate such arrangements if they obtain office?

Ed Miliband has promised that a future Labour government would, in its first year of government, guarantee zero-hours workers the right to a formal contract after 12 weeks of regular work. This qualification period would mean that up to 90% of zero-hours contracts will be covered (with some specific exceptions, such as agency nurses who specifically request a zero-hours contract because they want to work for another hospital as well as their usual job). Some commentators have expressed concern that some employers might try to circumvent such a rule by (1) putting in place contracts for minimal hours that in practice provide little security to workers, or (2) dismissing workers before they complete the qualifying period. Furthermore, whilst this policy might provide a level of security to some workers, a crackdown on flexibility may negatively impact other workers and employers.

Vince Cable has criticised Labour’s policy on zero-hours contracts as going too far. The Liberal Democrat priority is banning exclusivity arrangements, rather than zero-hours contracts themselves. The coalition government has already introduced a bill rendering exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts void.

Similarly, the Conservatives would also resist any outright ban on zero-hours contracts. Cameron has insisted that there are individuals that welcome the use of zero-hours contracts as it gives a degree of flexibility. George Osborne has argued that it is not zero-hours contracts that are the problem for people who want to work more hours; the issue is the number of jobs available which can be addressed by job creation.

Opponents of zero-hours contracts claim that they are inherently exploitative, as they offer no guarantee of work to employees while simultaneously requiring them to be constantly available. Zero-hours contracts have also stoked general anxiety regarding the ‘casualisation’ of work and the removal of minimum rights for workers. On the other hand, they can provide much needed flexibility to both workers and employers. There is obviously some cross-party consensus on tackling the abuses of certain types of zero-hours contracts. However, how this issue will be addressed in practice will not be clear until after the general election.

Posted on 10/04/2015 in Legal Updates

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