Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently (or fortunate enough to have not moved back into your teenage bedroom with your parents after finishing university, stuck in front of the news every night), you’ve probably seen the recent news headlines regarding zero hour contracts in the UK over the past month.
The term ‘zero hours’ can sound at first somewhat desirable – I mean who wouldn’t want to get paid for doing nothing? Wait – before I’m accused of giving false definitions – lets just clear up what the term actually means. ‘Zero hours’ is a colloquial term for an employment contract under which the employee is not guaranteed work and is paid only for the work he or she carries out. The worker is usually expected to be available when the employer needs him or her to work, but the worker can also refuse the offer of work. Or so employers say. Many employers expect employees to accept work at the drop of a hat – and desperate for work, many will.
Frances O’ Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has condemned zero-hours contracts, calling on the Lib-Con coalition government to ‘stop stripping workers’ rights on the grounds that employers are exploiting workers who are desperate for hours. Natalie Bennet, leader of the Green Party, has commented that ‘workers in Buckingham Palace, home to some of the most privileged individuals in Britain who are supported by extensive public funding, should be employing workers on zero-hours contracts, committing them to be available to work without guarantee of work, is deeply disturbing’. Hold on – before we all get carried away, haven’t we forgotten something? That this same woman now condemning such contracts used to employ people in the same manner when she was an Assistant Editor at The Guardian. Did somebody say, hypocrite?
…something I like to call vodka-knickers…
Excuse the puns, but is it all fuss over nothing? Zero? Zilch? For students and young people who only want casual hours whilst they study, a zero hour contract constitutes the dream job. I speak from experience here. During university I worked in a bar at weekends and aside from having the time of my life with my work friends, and watching the girl who’s had too much to drink stumbling, sorry – flying down the stairs with her dress tucked inside her underwear (something I like to call vodka-knickers), I was able to book time off during exams or refuse hours during those ‘finished-one-piece-of-coursework-bring-on-the-other-five-pieces’ weeks, and work more hours during university holidays. A zero hour contract therefore offers flexibility for the employee and is a pragmatic solution for the employer since workers are not being paid to sit around doing nothing when there is no work to be done.
However, for those with families to support and bills to pay, it can be a very stressful ordeal. Especially when you have studied hard for an occupation that requires skill, intelligence and damn right hard work. An air pilot for example – I’m pretty sure that a zero hour contract would seem like a slap in the face. Evert Van Zwol, chairman of the Ryanair Pilot Group’s interim council, has said recently that Ryanair’s pilots were not employed directly, but hired through agencies, many with zero hour contracts which offers no security or promise of a steady income.
…unemployment would have topped three million…
However John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has swiftly defended such contracts. He said those complaining need a ‘reality check’: ‘If we hadn’t had this flexible working when the economy contracted, unemployment would have topped three million – and it didn’t. It went to 2.5million.’
That being said – if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d like to know if John Cridland would be happy to accept such a contract.