Zero-hours contracts

A silhouette of a hospitality worker looking through a service hatch

What are zero-hours contracts? And what are the realities facing workers on ZHCs in the UK?

The Charted Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) says a zero-hours contract (ZHC) is “unlike a traditional contract of employment” because it “offers no guarantee of work”. So the employee is in employment. But they face the prospect of no work. And employers can use these types of contracts as a coercive tool to demand obedience from workers who feel “powerless”.

These contracts are unfair. And they’re exploitative.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also highlights that employers may not explicitly call these working arrangements a ZHC. Some employers may call these ‘casual’ or ‘flexible’ contracts. But there is nothing casual or flexible for these employees. Workers on ZHCs experience high levels of precarity. This uncertainty can range from fluctuating weekly income to inconsistent shift patterns – clashing with caring responsibilities. 

Women and young people are more likely to be on ZHCs than any other worker. And people of colour (POC) are nearly twice as likely to be on these contracts as white workers. The number of workers in this type of work is rising rapidly. It’s a problem that urgently needs addressing from legislators. But in the absence of much needed regulation, it falls on workers to resist.

ZHCs are rife

In 1995, the UK’s soon-to-be prime minister Tony Blair said if his party were in power it would put an end to ZHCs. But those interventions never came. Due to inaction from New Labour and successive Conservative governments, there continues to be a rising number of these contracts.

According to the ONS in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nearly 1 million workers in the UK were on these precarious contracts as their main job. But in 2015, CIPD claimed there were over 1.3 million workers in this type of work – casting doubt on the true extent of this issue and the accuracy of statistics. But one thing we can be sure of is the rapid increase of these contracts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. And the sectors where ZHCs are rife include: hospitality, social care, cleaning, higher education and office support jobs – work often carried out by women.

One of the most prominent problems with ZHCs is the ability for employers to stop the flow of work to an employee with little or no notice. As stated in research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 2019, over half of workers on ZHCs have had shifts cancelled with less than 24hrs notice. And in doing so, there is no legal obligation for the employer to provide replacement work. And there’s no compensation pay for the employee.

The grim realities

Findings from the Citizens Advice Bureau in 2018 highlight concerns around the fluctuation in earnings impacting on Universal Credit claimants. It was particularly concerned about the shift from Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit being replaced by Universal Credit.

In 2019, Feeding Britain revealed instances of workers in this type of work relying on foodbanks to get by. Speaking to Feeding Britain, Arnold from West Cheshire said:

I am frequently using foodbanks as I am unsure of the working hours I will get each week and am unable to forecast financially. I am depressed and feel low all of the time.

He went on to say:

I feel like my boss holds all of the power and uses me to suit his own schedule. He is not consistent and does not give shifts out every week. My boss is also my landlord which has a further negative impact.

In 2016, the Resolution Foundation suggested workers on these contracts faced a ‘pay penalty’ of between 6.6% and 9.5% compared to permanent employees. To be classed as employed by ONS data, an individual has to work just one hour per week. So the growing numbers of these casualised working arrangements are masking the grim realities lurking under the veneer of labour market figures.

More likely to work anti-social hours and seven days

The experiences of working on ZHCs differ. But those who do this type of work are more than twice as likely to work nightshifts as those who are in more permanent secure work. And these workers are nearly twice as likely to work seven days per week. Nearly 7% of young workers (under the age of 25) are on a ZHC. And According to research conducted by the TUC in 2019, one in 24 POC workers are on these contracts compared to one in 42 white workers. And POC workers are more than twice as likely to be on an agency contract than white workers. The TUC points to the institutional racism that exists in the UK labour market. And with these striking figures, it is hard to disagree. POC workers face a “triple hit” of too few hours, temporary work and low pay.

A form of control

Employers use the rhetoric that ZHCs provide flexibility for the worker. But in most cases, this flexibility falls in the employer’s favour. Writing for Novara Media in 2020, Dr Alex Wood said workers’ shifts can be changed at “the drop of a hat”. For workers, this can cause problems for their social life, rest time or other personal responsibilities. But that’s not all. Wood’s research on retail workers on ZHCs in the UK and United States (US) shows how flexibility over working time is used by management as a control mechanism.

Workers can face arbitrary punishment for not being flexible or obedient ‘enough’. In many cases, management will withhold hours from workers perceived to be ‘problematic’ or simply standing up for themselves. Or in some cases, management can alter a worker’s ‘normal’ shift pattern, impacting on working parents or those with two jobs. Alternatively, managers may reward workers with the ‘good’ shifts or extra hours for productive and compliant behaviour.

COVID-19 and the service sector

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted greatly on hospitality workers. Many restaurants, entertainment venues and bars have been closed since before Christmas 2020. And workers don’t know when they will reopen. Front-line workers at Cineworld, who are nearly all on ZHCs, were kept on when the company closed its doors for an “indefinite period” in October 2020. This was despite employees having no work and no pay.

Speaking to The Guardian in October 2020, one worker said:

People want the option to take redundancy but that doesn’t seem to be what the company wants to do

They went on to say:

It feels like they’re holding us hostage.

Cineworld Action Group, a campaign group formed by front-line workers, are demanding the cinema chain treats its workers fairly when it reopens:

Workers’ experiences of precarity go beyond just fluctuations in earnings. Workers on ZHCs can feel insecure across other parts of their lives – such as living arrangements and caring responsibilities. A precarious worker can also experience feelings of hopelessness. And these workers can also be excluded from the ‘traditional’ full-time permanent unionised working class struggles and efforts – which have dominated mainstream trade unionism in the past.

But precarious workers are organising

In 2015, precarious workers in Scotland – with the support of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) – formed BetterThanZero. The collective has taken on some of Scotland’s most exploitative hospitality employers. And BetterThanZero also offers support and advice to precarious workers who want to organise. Similar to Cineworld Action Group, SpoonsStrike and McStrike have been created by front-line workers to fight back against their employers.

Unite has also been supporting workers during the pandemic. The trade union and its members have taken on allegedly unscrupulous employers including Marriott, Scottish Events Campus and Scotland’s largest hospitality employer G1 Group. And they won. Unite forced Marriott to give their casual workers – mostly women and migrant workers -the same treatment as their permanent colleagues. And the G1 Group made an “embarrassing” U-turn in just 48 hours after sacking almost 2.000 precarious workers by phone.

Workers’ struggles and resistance in the past have brought about the rights we see today in the UK. And now workers on these exploitative contracts are organising. And they can win against exploitative employers. But they need our solidarity.

Lead contributor Brian Finlay

Main article image via Tyler B Dvorak/Flickr