Zero hours contracts fail to guarantee workers their rights and security; they must be outlawed.
On 14 September, the Office of National Statistics published data about the UK employment rate – which at a first glance seems very promising: 74.5 per cent of those aged between 16 and 64 are in work. This is an all-time record, which, alongside the lowest unemployment rate seen by this country in over a decade, suggests that the Conservative’s long-term economic plan is working. It gives credence to Philip Hammond’s statement that, “the fundamentals of the British economy are solid”. A closer analysis of this data however reveals a very different story.
Almost three per cent of the British workforce are on zero hours contracts. They essentially allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work. However, as a consequence they leave too many people uncertain over their income, not knowing when they will be offered work next. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that one of the principal reasons that young people are still significantly worse off than before 2008, is because average weekly earnings have fallen. This has largely been caused by a sharp increase in the usage of zero hours contracts.
The Conservative government are completely satisfied by seeing citizens struggling to provide for themselves and their families, as long as they are in work. Zero hours contracts have been proven to encourage exploitation of workers. An employee might be offered no work for months by a company despite being officially employed by them. It makes financial sense for a company to employ more people than they require for the purposes of contingency, provided that they do not need to pay those not working on a particular day. Many event staffing agencies, for example, will even offer their employees work at venues as reserves, yet upon their arrival will send them home if they are surplus to requirement. Banning zero hour contracts would show that the government is taking a strong stance on exploitative employment practices.
Companies use zero hours contracts as a method of attracting younger people in particular. Many employers advertise casual work as a flexible option for students to fit around their studies. Of course there is merit to this argument, for example: a student who plays football may work for a company that allows them to organise when they work around their matches. It would be inaccurate to suggest that all companies using zero hours contracts have insufficient regard for the wellbeing of their staff. However these examples of casual work serving individuals well are insufficient when attempting to defend zero hours contracts generally. Staff can be treated well because of the benevolence of their employer, not because casual work itself guarantees good treatment.
Moreover not only is it impossible for companies to be legally obliged to treat their employees well, but they can equally maltreat their employees without facing legal consequences. Sports Direct have been able to fire members of staff for not being able to work a shift at short notice and have used threats of punitive measures to frighten employees into complying with shameful work regulations.
Of course people can use their experiences of zero hours contracts to argue for their abolition or their continuation. However, individual stories are frankly irrelevant when assessing the merits of their general use. Rather, we must evaluate casual work on the basis of weighing its potential benefits against its flaws. It is apparent that zero hours contracts can lead to a horrific level of worker exploitation: they remove certainty over one’s pay, negatively affecting one’s physical and mental health, and unless they are banned, companies will continue to employ far more people than necessary, treating their own employees as expendable commodities to inflate their own profit margins.