T he conclusion of the recent UK General Election brought many surprises, not least of which was that the leading poll predictions were so wrong. As it happened, only the actual exit polls indicated that the incumbent government would stay in power.
At the start of campaigning, the phrase ‘zero-hours contracts’ transformed from a method of securing contract workers to a political standpoint. In doing so, the phrase has attracted a whole slew of interpretations depending on your political spectrum and own circumstance. On one side of the spectrum is the perspective that zero-hour contracts are driven by market forces and the freedom they support is necessary for some industries to thrive. In contrast, the opposing position holds the belief that these contracts are used by employers to take advantage of employees; avoiding financial and legal responsibilities while controlling employees through unfair working hour allocation.
With companies requiring a more dynamic workforce and workers wanting greater flexibility, there is always going to be a drive to reduce guaranteed hours to the lowest level – zero. For workers, that offers greater flexibility but also introduces uncertainty. For employers, it offers workforce elasticity but eliminates important aspects of consistency. So it would be true to say it is a mixed bag for both sides.
The UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that 700,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts between October and December, 2014 – representing a mere 2.3% of the UK workforce and an increase of only 0.4% on the previous year. Hardly a vote winner or one likely to propel a party into a majority government.
The ONS also found that the vast majority of zero-hours contractors worked 25 hours (or more) per week – quite reasonable if one is looking for a flexible work offering. 84% of people on zero-hours contracts said they had either enough or about the right amount of work. Again, hardly likely to win a lot of votes.
Opposition leaders were keen to impose legislative restrictions on zero-hours contracts to ensure that contractors were offered regular contracts after 12 weeks of employment. A fundamental change to a system that, for the most part, is welcomed by the people it serves, both employer and employee. To maintain flexibility, employers would jettison the contractor before the 12-week cut-off date, leaving them with an inconsistent workforce and increased recruitment costs. Contractors would be either tied to static hours or, worse still, an unpredictable job marketplace.
So how did this become such a political ‘hot potato’? Actually that isn’t the question to ask. The real question is about how quickly the employment market is changing and how lawmakers ensure that we still can have the flexibility that some want with the safeguards that society can offer? One thing is for sure, zero-hours contracts are here to stay and legislation will no doubt be needed to better protect the vulnerable, but perhaps not for some time yet, not at least until it becomes a vote winner.