The area of employment law that most commentators have been focusing on recently, as well as the numerous employment law changes that have been coming into force over the last few months, is zero-hours contracts. According to a CIPD study around 1 million UK workers are currently employed on these contracts, but there is widespread confusion and controversy as to their make-up and purpose. Zero-hours contracts are now causing enough of a fuss for Business Secretary Vince Cable to order a review of what he calls the ‘murky’ issue.
Zero-hours contracts are work contracts that place no limit (upper or lower) on the number of hours worked, meaning employees could potentially work 40 hours one week and no hours the next.
The negatives of these contracts are obvious; they offer little security for employees, particularly those with financial commitments, and can leave the most vulnerable in the workforce open to unfair treatment that in the eyes of the law is perfectly acceptable. Problems arise when these contracts are used incorrectly, usually in a situation where a large pool of workers will be used instead of employing staff on full-time contract, with no guarantee of availability of shifts.
What much of the media coverage in recent weeks has failed to point out however are the benefits of such contracts. They offer flexibility for employers, particularly start-ups or firms operating in seasonal or uncertain industries, whilst giving more employees the chance for work. They also offer more flexibility for those people in society who might need to fit work around other responsibilities – such as parents and carers – provided they can account for the uncertainty with regards to hours.
Although they are particularly open to abuse from unscrupulous employers, something which the figure of 1 million seems to suggest quite heavily, when used correctly zero hours contracts are a great tool for a specific area of employment, and offer benefits for both employers and employees.