THE BLOG

Time to Zero in on Zero Hours Contracts

09/09/2015 12:07 BST | Updated 08/09/2016 10:12 BST

Zero hours contracts are the Marmite of work: Loved or loathed. But are we doing enough to make them fair ?

This is starting to matter. The number of people employed after signing them has risen by 19 per cent over the past year to 744,000.

Most of those on zero hours contracts are women, the young, the old or those in full-time education. Coincidentally, almost the same demographics that appear on any list of most exploited groups.

We need to think harder about these work arrangements. In particular, whether benefits to business are outweighed by the creation of a 'precariat' living under the strain of uncertainty, unsure whether their job will deliver any work let along pay the grocery bill.

But the contracts are clearly here to stay, at least until our tolerance for paying corporate welfare in the form of housing subsidies and tax credits needed to support many of those on them becomes too much to bear.

So making them work better should be a priority, not a bullet for employers to dodge.

For example, Sports Direct, a FTSE 100 company, has decided to give £37 million worth of shares to all its permanent staff. It has excluded those with zero hours contracts. I suspect the gift did little to make the 'zeros' feel especially valued.

The Sports Direct decision is a reminder why of zero hours contracts remain an unsettled part of the jobs landscape: They often demean.

The very least that should be given in return is a share in benefits and distributions. We might then all be happier to pretend a contract of employment that is actually no guarantee of any at all is still worth supporting, let alone with taxes.

Many people, of course, benefit from flexible contracts. But that is no argument for not making them better.

Fast food chain McDonald's, to its credit, does give the same benefits as it offers those working on permanent contracts, which is just as well: 90 per cent of its UK employees are on zero hours contracts. But that at least is how the contract should work: A bit less take, a bit more give.

The debate about zero hours contracts has become too focused on whether their very existence is fair. It should move on.

For most people, a zero-hours contracts is still substandard employment. After all,who would choose to get less benefits from their employment?

John Cridland, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry noted recently that the number of people with zero hours contracts was "less important" than making sure they benefit both individual and employer.

He is right. A constant focus on numbers and the principle of zero hours contracts every time the issue is raised, either by unions, politicians or official statistics, is keeping attention away from the real issue: What else should those on them be given?

A good starting point might be to recognise that employers showing generosity to all their workers, regardless, bind them closer than those who create a caste system.

We might also recognise that the law does not forbid employers from offering the same benefits to all those they sign up to zero hours. Decency says they should do it anyway.