Research has suggested that nearly two out of every three colleges have teachers on controversial zero-hour contracts. But says, Jane Scott Paul, many employers and employees don’t have a choice but to use them.?

 

Zero-hour contracts are being debated within the FE sector and wider media after research from the University and College Union indicated more than 60 per cent of colleges had them in place with teachers.

Exploitative, unfair and murky were just some of the terms used to describe the contracts which allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work and for individuals to be ‘on-call’ around the clock.

The arrangement means an employee only works as and when they are needed and is only paid for the hours they work.

The widespread scale of this practice across the UK economy has recently been brought to light. According to a survey of 5,000 Unite members, as many as 5.5 million workers could be on the contracts.

The contracts deny the employee important rights including the entitlement to holiday and sick pay and the guarantee of future work.

So why are employers offering agreements which offer no certainty or financial stability? And more importantly, why are employees settling for them?

In these difficult economic times, employers have been forced to make hard choices.

The public sector, including the FE sector, is having to reduce budgets dramatically.

These contracts were created to allow businesses the flexibility to respond to fluctuations in their workflow by calling on a pool of workers when they are needed.

But it is evident that the use of zero-hours contracts has extended far beyond the types of work for which they were originally designed, with those employed on these terms paying a high price.

Why are employers offering agreements which offer no certainty or financial stability? And more importantly, why are employees settling for them?

While zero-hours contracts are of benefit to some, such as those who wish to work on an ad-hoc basis (including the retired, students who can only work at certain times of the year, or seasonal migrant workers), in practice, with their widespread adoption, the benefits of flexibility are one-way in favour of employers.

The reality is that many of those employed through these contracts find it immensely hard to plan their lives when they cannot rely on regular work and have a fluctuating income.

We need to ask if the majority of those employed on these contracts wish to be?

Many don’t have a choice. With high levels of unemployment most workers are not in a position to be ‘picky’ and have to take any offer of work, even if hours cannot be guaranteed.

The arrangements are enforced by employers who are either using them to survive or who are exploiting them to cut costs.

But life can be very uncertain for those employed through these contracts — especially for those with families.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said at the TUC conference recently the contracts had been “terribly misused”.

It seems the pendulum has swung too far towards thoughtless cost-cutting.

An offer of unpredictable hours and irregular pay is exploitative and is certainly no way to build staff morale and staff cohesion.

While money will be saved in the short-term, a long-term price will be paid if the FE sector is unable to attract and retain the talent it needs to meet the challenges and opportunities it faces.

The Association of Colleges requested good examples of zero-hours contracts. To qualify for that description, the benefits and risks must be shared equally between employer and employee. I suspect that examples of good practice will be few and far between.

David Prentis, general secretary of Unison, commenting on zero-hours contracts summoned up an alarming spectre: “They wind the clock back to the bad old days of people standing at the factory gates, waiting to be picked for a day’s work.”

This is not something we want to see in 21st Century Britain.

Jane Scott Paul, chief executive, Association of Accounting Technicians