Is it zero hour for the voluntary sector?

Zero-hours contracts are particularly popular in the hotel and catering industries. Picture: PA
Zero-hours contracts are particularly popular in the hotel and catering industries. Picture: PA
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You may think that the controversial contracts have no place in some areas of the economy. You’d be wrong, says Lesslie Young

The deadline for submission of evidence regarding zero-hours contracts to the Scottish affairs select committee passed on 14 October. As the name implies, these offer no guarantee of the minimum number of hours of work for an employee.

The committee meeting in mid-September heard the findings from a survey about these contracts of employment conducted on behalf of the Unite union in Scotland.

There is a body of opinion that these contracts are plain bad – that they are exploitative, create and sustain insecure working environments, that they make it difficult for workers to get credit, a loan or a mortgage. Further, they are counter-productive because they demotivate and undermine the commitment of the workforce.

The prevalence of zero-hour contracts in the UK is not entirely clear. The Office for National Statistics placed the number of employees on these contracts as low as 250,000 – 1 per cent of the working population – but has acknowledged that this is probably an underestimate. A survey of employers conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) places the figure much higher, at about one million.

The CIPD survey found that one in five employers employed at least one person on a zero-hours contract, that they were most prevalent in the hotel, catering and leisure, education and healthcare sectors, and that the average hours worked by such workers is 19.5 per week.

The survey also found differences between sectors in the use of these contracts. The private sector was found to have 17 per cent of employers using zero-hours contracts. By contrast, 24 per cent of public sector employers reported using them, but the sector with the highest proportion, at 34 per cent of employers, was the voluntary sector.

On the face of it, it doesn’t look good for the voluntary sector if it is leading the way in exploitative contracts. The anecdotal evidence is that the number of these contracts is on the rise – that this is occurring in a time of austerity is seen as evidence by association that these are a bad deal for workers.

The Unite union is certainly convinced of this. Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said on its website: “The growth in this phenomenon is the latest mutation of precarious employment, which is condemning millions of workers to an insecure subclass of employment.”

Zero-hours contracts are not new

These are strong words, but the truth is that zero-hours contracts are not new and not inherently bad. Even Unite’s survey results, as presented to the Scottish affairs committee, found that, of those currently employed on zero hours, 28 per cent, if given the choice, would continue with their contract.

Epilepsy Scotland employs a number of support work staff on zero-hours contracts, which we have used for many years. We also have contracts offering guaranteed hours, but they cannot always be sustained in the face of unpredictable demand for services. Employees on all contracts have the same rights to sick pay, holiday pay and other entitlements as those on full or part-time contracts.

The clear advantage to the employer of zero hours is flexibility. There is also a flexibility attending to the employee, but according to the Unite survey, 72 per cent would not persist with their zero-hours contract if they had a choice, leading to the conclusion that flexibility is not as highly valued by most employees.

Match the needs of workers

However, in order to sustain the commitment of employees for any kind of contract, there must be an effort by the employer to match the needs of workers for a certain minimum amount of hours of work. Even in the case of an imagined sector of employment where zero hours were universal, it is in the employer’s interest to be competitive with respect to conditions of work in order to attract the best candidates, who would otherwise take their zero-hours contract and, quite rightly, go to work elsewhere.

Unite in Scotland sees the increase in zero-hours contracts as indicative of an underlying and increasing exploitation of the workforce. I think that any contract of employment stands alone and it is how it is implemented in practice that marks exploitation.

Unite refers to “rogue employers”, and I am certain that they do exist. I do, however, think that such an employer would exploit workers on any form of contract and it is the guarantee of employment rights, and the enforcement of these rights, that is crucial – not the number of hours stated on a contract.

• Lesslie Young is chief executive of Epilepsy Scotland,

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