What are zero hour contracts?
A zero hour contract is a contract which gives neither an obligation to the employer to offer work, nor an obligation on the party of the employee to accept it. The exact mechanisms for achieving this differ between contracts, but the lack of obligation is the heart of the zero hour contract.
They are designed to provide an alternative to agency workers. An agency worker would be rented out when there is demand, through an intermediary (the agency). A worker on zero hours doesn’t have to work through the middle man. This is an advantage.
A difficult battleground?
There is a debate as to their effect. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that they damage the ability of the lowest-skilled workers to demand living wages by permitting employers to take advantage of employees. Often, a zero hour contract is the only available offer of work. Yet this does not provide a guaranteed income. Naturally therefore, those working under such a contract seek to find other work. Employers however, could insert clauses to prevent the individual from searching for other jobs, knowing that the individual who accepts a zero hour contract is often desperate.
On the other hand, the argument can be made that during a period of economic recovery (when this become a hot topic) jobs were few – and even the ephemeral promise of a zero hour contract was preferable to nothing. This is particularly helpful for students, especially since some universities limit the amount of hours an individual taking a course is permitted to work.
Certainly, the changes formalised on the 26th of May 2015, forbidding zero hour contracts containing exclusivity clauses was a positive move because it addresses their potentially repressive nature.
In fact, this change significant becalms the storm surrounding the topic. Because the fact that zero hour contracts have been shown to stack rights in favour of the employer is not one that can be solved through legislating. A contract is the result of a negotiation between two parties. One of these two parties will almost always have a stronger position – and therefore be able to demand better terms. It is true that any government left of absolute capitalism should be interested in mitigating the harshness of the most heinous of demands (i.e. exclusivity clauses). But beyond this, there is little clarity on what exactly a government could to, beyond work on wages that employers must pay.
Zero hour contracts, having had the exclusivity element removed, are no longer a tools for repression. They are far from perfect, but they are a useful tool to ensuring more flexibility in an era where traditional jobs seem to be disappearing fast. Careful legislation must continue to prune them when they threaten to strangle their hosts.