Zero-hours contract. Zero flexibity.

Posted by Joana Martinho Communications Officer, UK Poverty

17th May 2012

Zero-hours contract. Zero flexibility.

With more than one million 16 to 24 year-olds out of work in the UK today, and the lack of well-paid stable jobs, the future doesn't look too promising for young people. Jennifer Glinski, an Oxfam volunteer, has experienced herself the difficulty of finding a suitable job, and the woes of a zero-hours contract.

At first, I thought a zero-hours contract would be a great solution to my "need income whilst seeking full-time employment" conundrum. The contract would offer me working hours when needed, as well as fast cash, and time for job applications. Well, I thought wrong. What appeared to be a simple solution turned into an on-call lifestyle with very little flexibility. And if it didn't suit me as a single young person, I can't imagine it would suit anyone with a family…

By definition, a zero-hours contract is an agreement under which an employer does not guarantee the employee a fixed number of hours per week. Rather, the employee is expected to be 'on-call' and, at the same time, receive payment only for hours worked. The zero-hours contract is particularly popular with small, independent business owners that require working staff, but seek to guard themselves against a potential drop in business activity. In the past, this type of contract has led to grave misuse of employees. In the late 1990's, cases were reported of workers being asked to remain physically present and available to work until their services were required. Although the employees remained on the premise of the business, they did not receive payment for their time spent not working. This specific form of labour abuse was later eliminated in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.

A convenient part-time job that became inconveniently full-time
For me, it played out somewhat differently, as I was on-call, but at home. I agreed with my employer that I would only be able to work between 20 to 25 hours per week, given my additional volunteering duties. In the beginning, this did not present any obstacles to my employer, until an increased number of hours became available. I started receiving text messages at midnight informing me of extended working hours for my shift the next day. What was intended to be a four-hour shift had now become a six-hour one and I had to disregard any other responsibilities during that time frame. This continued until I found myself working 38 hours every week, often opening the restaurant in the morning and closing it at the end of the day. Needless to say, this had not been my intention when entering my contract and to my employer's surprise, I did not welcome the additional ten or more hours per week. Due to the unexpected increase in working hours, I fell behind with searching for jobs and completing applications and, more importantly, I missed out on several opportunities to attend meetings and conferences relevant to my post-graduate job search.

Income is a gamble
Although the zero-hours contract was not a suitable work arrangement for myself, I understand its appeal to employers. The ability to cut hours when business is slow, as well as have an extra set of hands on deck in case things pick up, is an advantage for any business owner. Furthermore, the type of on-call lifestyle might be the perfect fit for certain individuals who have unlimited availability and are content with a varying degree of income. In the worst-case scenario, one could end up spending weeks without earning money. On the other hand, one could find themselves with increased working hours and a surplus of money. Either way, income is a gamble.

I find that this type of contact generally provides a lack of stability and control over one's income and life. Even now - where many people are facing economic hardship, and any job could potentially be considered better than no job at all - the zero-hours contract is quite simply an unrealistic option for any individual who has competing commitments, which, let's face it, is a great number of us.

Blog post written by Joana Martinho

Communications Officer, UK Poverty

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