The ugly side of the flexible labour debate has reared its head this week with the media revelations about the use of zero hours contracts by major employers like Amazon and Sports Direct. Even Buckingham Palace stands accused of exploiting the labour market in a year when royal fervor doesn’t get much stronger.
Zero hours contracts have divided opinion because they offer employees no security from week to week and less benefits than salaried staff. The counter argument is that the contracts provide the flexibility that businesses need to continue growing out of recession, staying responsive, agile and competitive. Except that it isn’t really a counter argument.
There is no dichotomy between wanting business success and maintaining the best possible conditions for your employees. There is never a black and white decision between business model or business morals. But there is a tension, and one that has to be addressed by the employer.
With 2.5 million people out of work, clearly somebody will be willing to take a job, perhaps under worse conditions than zero hours contracts impose. So we cannot expect the market to self-regulate, refusing jobs that don’t deliver a proper standard of rights. However, a complete ban on zero hours contracts would do even more damage. 250,000 people are employed on these terms – the ONS recently revised their estimate upwards by 20% - and for industries with seasonal demand, they are essential and useful.
We do have legislation to cover abuse of the zero hour contract by employers, but the issue has echoes of the recent government drive to stop abuses of the tax system. Business can legally place 90% of their staff on zero hours contracts, but is this really acceptable? We’re relying on media, public and government pressure to ensure that this isn’t widespread practice. Which is why it’s so pleasing to see Channel 4, The Guardian and the BBC take up the cause of zero hours workers and investigate whether this is really something we want to be widespread practice in the UK.
The Work Foundation have called for a full enquiry into zero hours contracts and I think it is necessary, to eradicate some of the grey areas and raise public awareness of employee rights. This is a complex issue, we need to solve unemployment but we must also be careful not to sacrifice employees' conditions along the way.
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