Zero hours: handled fairly, zero problem

7 August 2013
There has been a lot of debate about flexible work this week, but unfortunately there seem to be a lot of people out there (unions, Labour MPs, journalists on certain newspapers) who don’t think it’s a good idea. Almost half (46 per cent) of all the people working in this country don’t have a ‘traditional’ full-time, permanent job; they are either temps, self-employed or on part-time contracts. The UK’s flexible labour market is the envy of the world and, despite what some commentators want to suggest, it seems unlikely we will ever return to a full-time, full-employment economy.  Specifically, it is zero-hours contracts that have been under the spotlight, with anecdotal reports of poor treatment of some employees. This is clearly wrong and such cases need to be addressed. But the fact remains that there is nothing inherently wrong or exploitative about zero-hours contracts themselves. When managed well, with clear communication between employee and hirer, zero-hours contracts can benefit both the business and the individual. It is also critical that procurement professionals understand the various different contractual situations within their employment supply chain to ensure they are getting value for money and are protecting their employers’ reputation. Zero-hours contracts have often been associated with the lower-skilled end of the labour market. But we have heard of instances of musicians, university lecturers and medical staff being employed in this way. Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Resolution Foundation found that, on average, employees on zero hours contracts work 19 to 21 hours a week, the equivalent of a three-day week. The think tank also found that only 18 per cent of workers on these contracts were actively looking for other work, which suggests the vast majority are at least content with the hours and pay they are receiving. Big name employers such as McDonald’s have explained how they manage their staff on these contracts, planning rotas in advance to meet their fluctuating demand at the same time as ensuring workers have access to training and benefits. The contracts are also used by employers in the public and voluntary sectors. Domiciliary care is an area where use is growing, largely as a result of current public procurement practices and the need to meet ever-increasing demand from budgets that can’t keep up. An outright ban on zero-hours contracts would just lead to alternative models being created. Instead, the focus should be on ensuring managers who make hiring decisions have sufficient knowledge and skills to engage staff fairly and effectively and can maintain safe and sustainable supply chains. Poor management of the supply chain can have negative consequences for workers and also for the employer’s reputation. Whether employers recruit directly, through a specialist agency or via a range of providers and vendors, it’s important that they can have faith in the values and standards of any suppliers who engage with workers on their behalf. Procurement teams need to be realistic about the potential impact that attempts to squeeze budgets can have on the quality of staff they hire, or the quality of experience those employees end up having in their workplace. One of the key findings from our 2012 Flexible Work Commission, led by former British Chamber of Commerce chief David Frost, was that unemployment did not reach the levels expected during this recession because of the growth in flexible working. Flexible use of staff is here to stay – a situation that British businesses should be proud of, not something for which we should apologise. ☛ Kevin Green is the chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the professional body for the UK’s £25 billion recruitment industry
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