(If you’re reading this and you’re on a ZHC and would be willing to contribute your story toward a project I’m planning on the impact of ZHCs, please let me know via the comments section of this post!)
I wrote last night about the information I’ve started to find out about ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the NHS. The issue of zero-hours contracts generally has started to receive some media coverage recently, but the scale of the problem in the UK is very hard to quantify, because commercial companies are not generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and do not have to declare the numbers they employ on these contracts.
Because the NHS is subject to the FOI Act, the scale and extent of the use of these contracts in the NHS is a useful barometer of the wider problem of these contracts in the UK. My article last night covered only one FOI response I’ve received so far from the initial 6 (now 7) FOI requests I sent to different NHS Trusts. That one Trust responded exceptionally quickly – the others still have almost a month to provide their own responses. The Trust in question, University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trusts, employs a staggering 1,281 people on these onerous contracts.
Last night’s article has been widely read. From some of the ensuing comments and discussions on Twitter, it’s clear that there’s some confusion in people’s minds between a zero-hours contract and a casual contract. This is not surprising – both types of contract have no guaranteed hours, so no security of income for those working under them; under both you can take holidays and sick leave, but you won’t get paid for them.
However, the two contracts are not the same. There are very crucial differences. Below is the description of a zero-hours contract from a site that specialises in these and other types of legal contract and document:
“This Zero Hours Contract is designed to create an ‘on call’ arrangement between Employer and Employee. Zero hours contracts are used to cope with varying staff requirements, where the Employer is under no obligation to offer an Employee work but, when it does, the Employee is required to accept the offer.”
A different page on the same site clarifies the difference between casual contracts and ZHCs:
“The basic difference between these two contracts of employment are that a Casual Worker Contract does not oblige the workers to accept the work offered to them, but a Zero Hours Contract will oblige workers to accept the assignment(s) offered to them”
This is a massive difference. If you work under a casual contract and your employer offers you work that isn’t convenient, you’re perfectly free to say ‘No thanks’. This means you can use a casual contract as a 2nd job to top up your income from another job, whether full- or part-time. If offered work under the casual contract that clashes with your main work, you simply decline it.
Under a ZHC you have no such freedom. As the first quote states, the ZHC creates a continuous ‘on-call arrangement‘. If offered work, you have to take it. This means it’s almost impossible to take even a part-time job while you’re under a ZHC, because you’re required to be available to do any hours the employer wants at very short notice. Unless you’re extremely lucky and find completely casual hours to top up your income, from an employer who won’t mind if you have to turn down work or even suddenly leave work if your ZHC employer wants you, you’re completely at the mercy of the whims, wishes and needs of your ZHC employer. He gets you when he wants you – and if he doesn’t, you don’t earn. This makes you a kind of ‘bonded casual’ worker in a completely one-sided arrangement. You get all of the disadvantages of being self-employed, but none of the benefits such as being able to claim for travel and expenses.
The second key difference is that, because the zero-hours contract is a full-time arrangement (but to be on call, rather than working), ZHC workers will not be eligible for unemployment benefit even if they go a whole week or month with no work. In the last few months of ONS employment statistics, I’ve seen increases in the number of people on benefits even while the headline number of unemployed people has fallen. In part, this will be caused by people being forced to take low-wage jobs, who still need to claim some form of income support. However, it’s almost certain that this phenomenon is also directly related to increases in the numbers of people on ZHCs – who will have to claim income support whenever their hours don’t yield enough income to live on. But it’s a very complicated situation for anyone in it – trying to claim income-related benefit when in some weeks your income may be too high and in others low enough to qualify must be a bureaucratic nightmare!
So ZHCs are a blight on our society in a number of ways. Most importantly, they deprive workers of the security and dignity of a steady, reliable income while offering none of the upsides of casual or self-employment. Less but still very important, they represent an additional way in which taxpayers are subsidising the profits of business. Employers get all the benefits of an available, flexible workforce but get to avoid all the costs apart from the direct cost of hours worked – while the taxpayer has to make up the shortfall when hours worked are not enough to support workers and their families.
Zero-hours contracts are not a new phenomenon. But it seems clear that they are an increasing one. And they represent yet another way in which the government and its backers get to strip security away from working people so that they can be forced into accepting all kinds of onerous measures – while funds are funnelled ever faster from the public purse into private profits.
I call on every journalist, newspaper and news station to highlight this blight on our social structure – and on every politician to make eradicating these malignant contracts from the UK’s workplaces a priority issue.
And if you’re not a journalist, editor or politician, you can still take part and help to get rid of zero-hours contracts. Find your MP on http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ and write to her/him to tell them that you expect them to make this matter a priority until it’s resolved.
If enough of us bother, we can effect a change for the better.