Zero-Hour Contracts and The Future of the Workplace

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Estimates on the pervasiveness of zero-hours contracts vary, but workers’ union Unite believes the amount has almost doubled over the last five years. They are much maligned, and can often leave workers open to exploitation, but some experts say they represent a future of increasingly flexible working arrangements.

An employer has no obligation to provide any particular amount of work to employees with zero-hours, and has discretion over what they do offer. An employee is essentially on-call, although workers themselves are normally within their rights to turn down work.

So what are the major gripes? They can be exploitative, and fail to give workers a secure source of income. Some argue they are an attack on workers’ rights, used by employers to avoid providing benefits.

Still, many believe that the picture is not all doom and gloom, and that some elements of the zero-hours model point to progression in human resource strategy, with flexibility becoming paramount in the workplace.

Salt spoke to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a professional body for HR and people development to ask for its assessment.

Research adviser Ksenia Zheltoukhova said workers want to be able to work different patterns, and employers want to better match where people are available to where the need is.

However the importance of looking at flexible relationships like zero-hours from a well-considered perspective is vital since employers have more power within the contract. They must look at the ethical questions and ensure it is a win-win situation for long-term success, she added.

Despite what she called “tempting shortcuts” for employers, Zheltoukhova is optimistic about an improvement in relationships and employer practice: “There is definitely a push at the corporate governance level to be more responsible in how you treat people. If you treat people right you will get the business benefits in the end”.

If workers are to be at their most productive and motivated, contractual agreements may have to move away from situations where there is a lack of commitment from the employer side. Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE, who teaches organisational psychology and health at the University of Lancaster, certainly believes so.

Cooper, who has written and edited over 160 books, told Salt that zero-hours contracts do not take into account the importance of the psychological contract, which is essential to the wellbeing and consequently productivity of workers. He called zero-hours “one-way contracts”.

Cooper explained: “A good psychological contract is when both parties can benefit. If you want real motivation, people need security. I don’t think executives appreciate how important the employee side is, how much rewarding, allowing flexibility and giving job security contributes to the bottom line.”

To read our full feature on zero-hours contracts and the future of human resource strategy, pick up the second issue of Salt, available on Wednesday 1 July.

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Photo Credit: reynermedia from Flickr

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