Interview with an employee

Zero Hour contracts affect a lot more people than you would realise, so I spoke to part time pre-school worker Linda Thomson to ask her a few questions about her life as an employee with a zero hour contract. . unfortunately Linda didn’t want to be recorded taking part in the interview, so here is a write up of the events of the days.

Hi Linda, can you just explain in a few words what it is you do and how this relates to zero hour contracts?

Ok well, I work at a pre-school in Darlington for a few days week. When I’m there it’s just a case of looking after the kids, setting up their activities and clearing them away, as well as anything else that might need to get done. My contract is a zero hour contract, so this means that I’m not technically required to work any certain amount of hours, but it also means my boss isn’t required to give me any either.

Did you get much say in the kind of contract you’ve been given?

To be honest I hadn’t ever really heard of one before, but I knew what I was getting myself into when I applied for the job. It might not be ideal, but I needed a job as my husbands income stopped being enough so we just needed a little something extra on the side.

Would you advise going on a zero hour contract?

I don’t think  would, I mean its best to know that you are guaranteed hours really. But I wouldn’t say its the worse thing in the world, especially not for me as i say, we still have my husbands income to keep us afloat, but if you don’t have anything else its probably not best.

What would you say the positives are to having a zero hour contract?

Well it works out alright for me, as I don’t live too far away from the school so I’m always on standby when they me. And its great for earning a little bit of extra money as it means I don’t have to commit myself to doing too much more than I can handle. i am lucky though as i get on great with my boss, so i trust she wont be taking any liberties, though i can imagine that’s not the case for everyone with these contracts.

And what are the negative aspects of the contract?

My main issue is, that it becomes a little difficult to make plans as it happens quite often when I wont expect to be working and then I’m called in last minute, or I’ll think I’m needed when I’m not. I’m also very glad that i’m not the sole earner in the house, because I couldn’t rely on this job for that, as much as the flexibility is great, there’s just no stability.

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Zero Hour Contracts: The Numbers

Here’s a rundown of all the statistics you need to know about zero hour contracts…

  • It has been reported that the amount of workers on zero hour contracts has almost doubled over the past year, with a record number of 200,000. This number has been collected by the Office for National Statistics. 
  • This means that there is a record number of a massive 23% of employers using zero hour contracts.
  • Unison has revealed that 41% of homecare workers are on zero hour contracts
  • Newsbeat uncovered the number of 16-24 year olds on zero hour contracts has risen from 35,000 to 76,000 from 2008 to 2012
  • One in three of employees under 25 on a zero hour contract

May Monthly Round Up

As May comes to a close we take a look back over the past month to see what’s happened in the world of zero hour contracts…

  • This month started off with a bang as Labour Party Leader Ed Milliband pledged to reward employers for paying their low-paid workers more than the national minimum wage. Labour party politician Andy Burnham, however, believes this should be taken even further as to but a ban on zero hour contracts altogether.  
  • However on the 15t May it was reported by BBC Newsbeat, that there is a record number of 16-24 year olds currently working on a zero hour contract. It is believed that this has been increasing ever since the economic downturn. 
  • Also around mid-May, it was found that many care workers were being hired on a zero hour contract and the idea was put forward that this was not a good way of commissioning reablement staff.  CommunityCare reported that in order for stable and effective reablement then…

Councils should be prepared to invest up-front in reablement so that staff – whether in-house or in commissioned services – can receive training, supervision, paid travel time and set-contracted hours to help ensure effective services that will deliver savings by reducing people’s needs for care.

  • The Guardian voiced their concern that if trade unions, such as TUC don’t speak out, then that could spell a swift exit from the European Union, which would mean a high increase in the use of zero hour contracts.

What the streets are saying

To see what the general consensus on zero hour contracts were I took to the streets to see what the general public have to say.

I went to One Stop, Perry Barr and asked the local shoppers to give me a couple of sentences about zero hour contracts, to find out what they know and what they think.

Some people thought they were a great idea,

‘I guess it makes sense, im a student and don’t have the time to commit to a certain amount of hours per week, especially as my timetable changes quite often, I would definitely consider it.’ Joe Thomson, 19, student

‘it would make it easier to not have to be obligated to be at work when I have uni work to do, probably good for a bit of extra money on the side.’ Josie Roberts, 23, student and sales assistant

Others were not so sure,

“ It would be no good for me, I have a family to provide for so I need a steady income, it would just be no good.’ Kirsty Stewart, 41, receptionist

‘I don’t really see how they would work, surely the point of having a job means having stability, that is taken away from you when you are on zero hours’ Daniel Fairman, 32, shop manager

‘They would be good for students maybe, but not when you have a house and bills to pay for, it would just add so much stress, stress I couldn’t be doing with anyway.’ Sam west, 29, chef

Although some people didn’t want their quotes to be included, it was all useful in finding out public opinion. The discussion of zero hour contract seemed to divide the One Stop shoppers, some thought they seemed like a great idea, perfect for casual work and ideal for students. But on the other hand there were those who were looking for more stable work, those who need to look after their household, they felt that zero hour contracts wouldn’t suit their lifestyle.  So it seems that for the locals of one stop, it depends on the life your living.

From the eyes of the law

Of course there are many issues surrounding the issue of zero hour contracts but what I went to find out, was what is thought of a zero hour contract from a law perspective.

I spoke to a group of law students from Birmingham City University to see what they had to say on this matter.  I met with Leyla Buran, a human rights specialist, Ryan Brownett, an employment law specialist and Jackson Smith, a company law specialist.

All agreed that in order for a zero hour contract to be viable they,

need to meet the requirement of a mutuality of obligation.

Basically, meaning that the employer and the employee need to agree that the employer will be giving hours and the employee will be willing take these hours. This suggests an agreement of regular hours and regular income; however it is clear that this is not always the case.

Leyla was very quick to say that she felt a zero hour contract was

unfair and discriminatory for the employee.

She believed that as being part of a zero hour contract means you are not protected from anything and anyway this was not a desired position to be in, and strongly advised against agreeing to one.

However Ryan could fully understand the appeal for the employer as from their point of view it means they are ‘not legally tied down’ but for the sake of employee stability, probably wouldn’t recommend if you’re the breadwinner in the house.

Another issue that was brought up by the group of future lawyers was that of human rights. Being involved with a zero hour contract means missing out on basic job security rights such as maternity leave or sick leave, so again would not recommend.

Overall, although there may have been some dispute on technicalities here and there, it was decided among the group that from a their knowledge of contracts and employment the positives were in the employers favour and the employees tend to miss out.

The scandal that is: zero hour contracts

With people all over the country struggling to remain financially stable, Andy Burnham calling to ban zero hour contracts has opened up both the media and public eye to the scandalous impacts of  zero hour contracts.

Flexibility, unreliability and financial instability are all terms that have been used to describe what a zero hour contract involves. Whilst 67% of people have negative attitudes towards them, 55% said they would still consider undertaking these non-contracted hours. The overlap begins to show the mix of feelings these contracts evoke from workers.

Over the last few months we’ve conducted interviews, extensive research and put together a website full of information which has been intriguing people from all over the world. These people all have one thing in common, a concern involving zero hour contracts.

We’ve heard from people at UNISON, concerned mothers, students working on the controversial contracts and even the elderly.

With the 24 and over category having the highest zero hour contract employment figures we need to look at the wider implications these contracts can have. With age comes the need to financially support yourself, a mortgage, children and even food all become  financial priorities.

Debbie West a bank manager working in Great Barr explained

 “We ensure that all our customers can pay their mortgage, unfortunately for someone on a zero hour contract there is no guarantee of hours which means we can’t guarantee they will be able to replay the mortgage. We understand this is a difficult situation but would recommend customers to avoid these zero- hour contracts when looking to get on the housing market”

For the people that fall into the 24+ age category which are hoping to settle down and build a life which allows them to feel financially secure zero hour contracts can seem like a good, flexible alternative to a full time job or even a fantastic way to keep money coming in whilst unable to work.

Dawn Willis told me the emotional story of her two sons, both retained firefighters and both struggling to make enough money to support the basic needs of living. The hardest quote to read surrounds the fact that one of her sons was forced to go hungry after being given less hours than promised by his employer.

“How can he be expected to live on 5 hours worth of wages for a whole month?”

Sadly, this isn’t a one off occurrence. Tina Roberts, another concerned mother got in touch with me via our official Facebook page. Her daughter was put on a zero hour contract at a hotel chain, Holiday Inn, the job add promised 27 hours of work a week. Tina told me how her daughters hours slowly reduced down until she was on just 6 hours of work a week.

“Now she is a single parent, relying on benefits to make up the pittance she is paid by this hotel chain. In order to get benefits she has to work a certain amount of hours which when she applied and was interviewed she was told she would be working 27 per week which is sufficient for the extra support.”

Once again we can see a vulnerable adult, with a child to support, becoming victim to the unreliability of zero hour contracts. The guardian reported that 23% of employers in Britain were keeping workers on zero hour contracts to avoid having to give them the same rights as regular employees. This shows employers taking full advantage of the “benefits” of these contracts, such as not having to give a worker any hours but being able to keep them in the pipeline for emergencies.

This is exactly what Dawn Willis says is a problem in the wider political spectrum:

“The government are saying there are jobs- there are but they’re zero hours contracts so people can’t get any hours of work out of them.”

Tina Roberts is in agreement here saying zero hour contracts:

“should be stopped, everyone she (her daughter) works with is in the same position being sent home because of lack of work yet they are still advertising for more staff and probably wondering why the ones they employ are not happy with their lot.”

These case studies are just a handful, the number of people being affected and left unhappy with zero hour contracts is increasing and more people are speaking out about issues they have. The rise in popularity of discussion of these contracts in the media means more people are becoming aware of what these are and the hazards they can pose.

Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital employ 568 people on zero hour contracts, the majority of these (513) are female with 283 being staff nurses. I received an extract from their  Flexible and Family Friendly Working Policy and Guidelines in which they detail all of the guidelines and reasons for employing nurses on zero hour contracts.  The document shows the hospital understand exactly what zero hour contracts are and how they could be useful to both employers and employees.

“Zero hours contracts are those contracts where the organisation is under no obligation to provide any working hours and the employee does not have to work any hours when requested.”

Karen Law, a nurse for 20 years shows her understanding of nurses working on zero hour contracts

“I understand that those on zero hour contracts have less job security than us and can often be forced to work at lots of different hospitals”

Karen, like many others decided to change career paths after having unrealistic hours affect her life.

“I had to get out of the nursing because it was just such unrealistic hours when you have a family, I much prefer working in care now where I have more job security and I know exactly what shifts I am doing every week.”

Here, Karen mentions how she prefers working as a home carer. However Matthew Egan, assistant national officer at UNISON describes how zero hour contracts in the home care profession are unrealistic and bad news for both the staff and people needing care. He explains:

 “Given that the people receiving home care increasingly have substantial or critical health needs we believe it is very dangerous to have an employment model where it plausible that you could get scenarios where no workers are available to turn up and work”

The future for zero hour contracts and for those feeling forced to work on them is uncertain. However, what we do know is that the impact they have on peoples lives is both dangerous and unpredictable and change needs to be made.

With Andy Burnham calling Ed Miliband to ban zero hour contracts we can expect a proposal of change before the 2015 general elections. In the meantime we can expect to hear a lot more about these contracts, in the past week alone we’ve heard them discussed on Radio One Newsbeat , HR Network TV and on the BBC’S Free Speech Facebook page. The issue of zero hour contracts will be on the media radar for the foreseeable future and the more coverage they get, the more likely it is that change will happen.