It’s the question every father dreads being asked by their children. “Daddy?” a little voice will ask one day, “what’s a zero-hours contract?” You dread this moment for it will signal the beginning of the end: the end of childhood, the end of innocence, the end of hope! “Well, kid,” you’ll begin, “it’s your future! And you’re not going to like it!” I witnessed more or less this exact conversation take place last weekend when some friends came over for dinner, bringing their fifteen-year-old son with them. After working for a Further Education college in London for fifteen years, my friend Dan has just recently been made redundant, along with most of the rest of the teachers in his department. They all got a basic redundancy settlement – a few thousand pounds on top of the legal minimum the college was obliged to pay – but found the whole process very upsetting, as though they were simply being thrown out onto the streets after so many years of service. And then to add insult to injury, they found out that the work they had been doing was now being done by younger teachers on zero-hours contracts.
It was at this point in the conversation that Dan’s son, Ivan, interrupted and asked what these contracts were. We tried to explain that a zero-hours contract is an employment agreement in which the employer promises to employ the worker for a minimum of zero hours a year. Of course, usually, there’s a lot more work available, but basically you only get work as and when the employer needs you and you have no guarantee of regular work! Oh, and it also means you don’t get any sick pay if you have to take time off sick either! “Wait a minute,” Ivan said as he struggled to digest this information. “Let me check I’ve got this right. That basically means they promise you nothing!” “Exactly!” we both said. “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”
Companies love zero-hours contracts because the average worker earns something like 50% less on one than someone on a full-time contract does. This may well explain the incredible growth in zero-hours contracts we’ve seen in this country. They’re now widely used by retailers, restaurants, leisure companies and hotels – and increasingly in education and the health service too. Many companies, such as McDonald’s, now employ almost all of their staff on zero hours! Supporters of the contracts say they offer workers more flexibility and freedom, but as the old song says, freedom is often just another word for nothing left to lose!
- Have you heard of zero-hours contracts before? Are they common in your country?
- Can you think of any other pros or cons to being on a zero-hours contract?
- Do you know anyone who’s been made redundant? When? What happened?
- What are the most important things for you when you think about your job in the future?