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.

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The damaging impact of zero hour contracts in the homecare setting

Last year UNISON published a report illustrating the problems within our home-care sector which have a damaging impact on both people receiving care and the workforce providing it.

Page 16 of the report details the problems caused by the use of zero hour contracts (which are increasingly used by out-sourced providers) to both parties.

Matthew Egan, a UNISON worker, focusing on social care tells me:

The rise in zero hour contracts not only has a negative impact on the workers ability to budget and plan their life but prevents continuity of care and presents a major safeguarding issue.  Given that the people receiving homecare 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 Minister for Care Norman Lamb backs this up during a debate in Westminster on homecare workers.

“Moreover, the idea of a zero-hours contract is, in most circumstances, completely incompatible with a model of high quality care, in which the individual really gets to know their care worker.”

Full version can be found here.

Matthew appreciates that zero hour contracts do have some benefits to certain workers:

 In essence, there might be a few places where zero hour contracts are suitable – e.g. students doing bar work – but providing intimate and vital levels of care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities is definitely not one.

Zero hour contract news coverage on the rise

Zero hour contracts becoming a larger news topic

In and around the news in the last month- coverage of zero hour contracts is on the rise. Here’s some of the most compelling stories from April

Firefighters fighting for jobs

The phone rings, Dawn Willis picks up the phone to her son, worried he hasn’t got enough money to buy food for the week.

He’s been working on a zero hour contract due to the fact he’s a retained fire fighter (waiting to be called to duty).

Dawn, an active mental health campaigner but most importantly a mother was shocked to hear that her son, 23, a retained fire fighter, couldn’t even afford to live due to his zero hour contract meaning he’d worked limited hours.

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

This question is something I sadly couldn’t answer, but it shows how zero hour contracts are affecting people to the extent of not being able to support themselves.

Another issue, concerned mother Dawn broaches is the damaging effect of late shift cancellations.

“He’d get to work and walk through the front doors to then receive a text telling him his shift was off”

False hope, she says is having a serious affect in her sons self esteem and mental health.

“He’d be promised a shift only to be told at short notice that it’d been cancelled.”

On the wider political spectrum she says:

“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”

Look out for our future interview with Dawn’s son who will tell us how his zero hour contract has had a negative affect on his life.

Employers minimum wage scandal

Unless you live under a rock you will have heard about changes to the minimum wage in the last week – It’s increased by 1%. However, accompanying this “sensible decision” are concerns about the enforcement of the minimum wage. Despite it being against the law, employers are using sneaky ways to avoid paying the minimum rates say Nigel Morris and Oscar Quine for The Independent last week.

The low pay commission, which recommends minimum wage levels estimates that more than 100,000 adults receive below the legal rates.

These shocking figures are only estimates, up to 300,000 employees could be unlawfully denied the minimum wage.

Ways employers are avoiding paying the full wage include:

  • Restaurants assuming staff will receive a certain sum in tips.
  • Employees being wrongly classified as volunteers, untitled to a wage.
  • Companies charging staff for uniforms/accommodation/transport.
  • Paying cash in hand means hours and wages go unrecorded.

The Independent article has some great case studies, showing how hidden below the wage paying really is.

Paying a price for cost efficiency?

Children’s charity, Children England‘s policy manager Nick Davis, has managed to link the change in minimum wage to the spread of zero hour contracts.

As reported on “Who really works on a zero hour contract” a large percentage of zero hour contract workers are 16-24 year olds, just under half to be precise.

Davis states that yes, in business terms  the benefits of zero hour contracts are great in the short term.

However, in the context of the wider economy and society, it is a disaster.

The necessity or lack of for employers to train staff on zero hour contracts means that capacity over quality is an issue. Therefore, once again, zero hour contracts have been compared to an historical event.

This is exactly the problem that G4S had in the run up to the Olympics and in most cases the armed forces aren’t able to step in!

The Guardian compares zero hour contract problems to “the collapse of the soviet union”

Guy Standing, professor of economic security at The University of Bath, uses his article in The Guardian to discuss some of the issues surrounding zero hour contracts in comparison to previous historical issues in economic security.

Like many others, Guy views Zero Hour Contracts in a very negative light stating:

“The labour market is in a mess”

He says of the rules and regulations that mean, for workers, they have no right to training and the employer is able to use them as a free commodity that:

“It is eerily reminiscent of what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when millions of workers were kept on enterprise employment rolls without pay or benefits.”

This sounds like an extreme comparison to a situation that left millions in deprivation and starving however, as Guy explains:

“Zero-hours contracts are not in the same league. But they are part of the insecure underbelly of our society”

This then leads me on to the point that our society really is under immense pressure to change for the better, zero hour contracts seem to have been a failed attempt at this.