We LIVE in an imperfect world full of compromises. On one view that’s what zero-hours contracts are. They will not help you secure a mortgage but they may well allow you to work flexibly and they will allow you to contract directly with an employer rather than securing work through an agency.
Employment agencies need to take their cut and a zero-hours contract can allow a provider of work to pay those engaged under such terms at a higher rate than a worker would receive if employed through an agency.
Few businesses have the luxury of regular and predictable work flows. Spikes in activity and demand have to be managed. Sometimes it is possible to manage this by fixed-term contacts of short duration.
The zero-hours contract, although not guaranteeing any set minimum hours, allows for repeat business and those workers with experience of the job may be asked back time after time.
Those workers can benefit by not having to commit to regular hours and set days and can choose whether to accept work that is offered, for example on their birthday, during exam time, when they don’t have child care or during school holidays.
Without zero-hours contracts, many employers would require permanent staff to work overtime. The zero-hours contract releases this pressure and allows more workers to participate in the job market.
Flexibility gives us a competitive edge
For those not seeking flexibility, they can often lead to permanent contracts. Once given a chance to show their potential, without an employer having to commit to a permanent contract, workers are often asked to convert to permanent status.
Abolishing zero-hours contracts isn’t the answer. Those who sign up to them have rights to paid holidays and protection from discrimination. Employers could simply offer short fixed-term contracts for a few hours a day, or a week at a time, as an alternative.
That would just increase the administrative burden employers already face. It wouldn’t stop longer term uncertainty for those who don’t want the flexibility these contracts offer. Flexibility in UK workplaces gives us a competitive edge that we should not seek to diminish.
• Karen McGill is a partner in Employment law with MacRoberts.