Robyn Vinter: How zero-hours contracts can encourage illegal behaviour

Today the government said jobseekers would lose their benefits if they turn down zero-hours contracts without a good reason.

What constitutes a good reason is very vague. The government has said it will be up to Jobcentre staff to decide who will be forced to take the contracts, which do not guarantee any work. In fact, the government’s own data estimates they offer an average of just 25 hours a week.

Claimants offered zero-hours contracts will be put in a lose-lose situation. They will lose their jobseekers allowance either way, but will not be guaranteed any work. Some ethical employers (usually SMEs in my experience) will try to ensure their employees get the number of hours they need, but in reality, these rules will force many people into underemployment – working, but not getting the hours they require.

This is the most striking problem with zero-hours contracts, and the one that has made headlines so far, but there is a deeper, more troubling issue bubbling under the surface.

Zero-hours contracts allow unethical and illegal behaviour to go unchallenged.

Part of the reason these contracts are so popular among employers is that they change the balance of power between managers and their staff. They put employers in a position where they can decide which employees get the most hours, and which don’t get any at all.

While I was at university I knew a large number of people who have worked on zero-hours contracts (or in some instances four-hour contracts) and the same thing crops up time and time again.

Staff clearly feel compelled to be on their “best behaviour” to ensure they’re in their manager’s good books to get the hours they need. On paper this sounds brilliant – staff work hard to deliver the best service and are rewarded by being given extra hours. But it can be open to abuse and leave staff vulnerable.

Please bear in mind while reading this, it is just a tiny snapshot of what people have told me they have seen while on zero-hours contracts.

One employee in a service role, Lynn, told me her “best behaviour” often involved laughing at the general manager’s irritating jokes, pretending not to find him creepy and putting up with him badmouthing other employees behind their backs. This was unfortunate and made for an unpleasant working environment - but at worst it led to ignoring blatant racism.

Lynn revealed how she thought a colleague’s hours had been stealthily cut because, as a Muslim, the colleague put on gloves to handle pork products – something the manager had made clear to everyone he thought was unnecessary and said it made the colleague “slow” at serving customers.

Lynn said she didn’t even consider reporting her employer because she didn’t want to risk being seen as a trouble-maker – she wanted to keep her head down to make sure the managers continued to put her on the rota.

It’s a similar story for Alicia, who worked at a bar chain during her time at university. She returned from two weeks’ holiday during exam time to find she had been taken off the rota entirely.

“I’d essentially been sacked for taking holiday, which is completely illegal, except they hadn’t sacked me, they’d just decided not to give me any hours. In the end I just had to get another job, but it was stressful because I was wondering how I was going to pay my bills,” Alicia said.

On the reverse side, people also told me they felt they could not turn down any extra hours they were given because they were scared they’d not get enough in the future. I know a lot of people who, particularly during university, worked extra shifts at their job, despite needing the time to do university work because they felt unable to turn them down.

These contracts bring out the absolute worst in business, providing a fiefdom for unscrupulous managers and disregarding laws that fair employers and employees have worked hard to create and uphold.

Without staff who feel able to report problems, employees’ rights go out of the window, and with them, the reputation of British business - something increasingly important as the economic recovery takes hold and businesses cry out for investment.

It’s about time we valued employees and respected business by saying no to zero-hours contracts.

*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity for the staff and companies involved.

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