Employment Law: Exactly Why Do Zero-Hour Contracts Still Exist?

Does it seem to you as though the government is all over creating new laws for the insignificant aspects of life, yet they definitely procrastinate in legislating against the things that really matter? With so many people having voiced concerns over what are known as zero-hour employment contracts for such a long time now, how else can we justify such a deplorable lack of action in this regard?

The fact is that there are believed to be anywhere between 250,000 and 1 million people on these zero-hour contracts, representing between 1 and 4 per cent of the total workforce of the United Kingdom. What is more, very well-known names on the High Street have been identified for relying on these contracts, including the ubiquitous pub chain JD Wetherspoon and Sports Direct. It was even revealed that some of the staff working at Buckingham Palace are said to be employed in this far less secure manner; also many of the local authorities in London are guilty of using these contracts.

Basically, zero-hour employment contracts mean that the employer is under absolutely no obligation to provide their employees with any hours of work each week. It is said that around 16 per cent of employees on this type of contract have claimed that their employer fails to provide them with a sufficient number of work hours each week to survive. These contracts allow the employer to call in their staff as and when they need them, and this places the employee on almost permanent standby; however, in return, employers do not have to offer the same perks and benefits to their employees as they would be obliged to under standard employment contracts.

The government has been well aware of these contracts for years now and has failed to take any steps to legislate against zero-hour contracts – even though these contracts would certainly be more at home in a third-world or developing nation than in a country that has an economy that ranks as sixth in the world and is actually the strongest growing in the whole of the Western world. 

Zero-hour contracts mean that employers really can have their cake and eat it. But then, there are other people who adamantly maintain that when there is so much pressure on employers nowadays (be this through maternity/paternity leave and a whole host of other financial obligations), it is no wonder they are choosing to go down this route. After all, the government seems intent to legislate more and more financial obligations on the employer, and this is known to be simply crippling for many – to the point that it can force companies out of business. 

Some proposals have been put forward to address zero-hour contracts by the Labour leader, Ed Milliband. Amongst them:

•    Ensuring workers can demand a fixed-hours contract when they've worked regular hours over six months for the same employer
•    Receipt of a fixed-hours contract automatically when workers have worked regular hours for more than a year – unless they choose to opt out
•    Protection from employers forcing them to be available all hours and insisting they can't work for others or cancelling shifts at short notice – for no money

Obviously, the most ideal course of action here would be to make zero-hour contracts unlawful; however, as the government has proven that this is unlikely to happen any time soon, perhaps the proposals above that were set out for Scotland to entice the Scots against voting for independence would be a happy compromise and just a little bit of security and protection for the unfortunate employees forced to work on these contracts.