December 7, 2023
An evidence review led by the University of Warwick has concluded that the increase of zero hours contracts over the last 20 years has created significant risk for workers. They found that unreliable work can result in a sudden loss of hours and earnings, and an inability to access legal advice for unfair or potentially unlawful employment practices. Along with colleagues from the ReWAGE expert advisory group, academics at the Institute of Employment Research at the University of Warwick examined the legal and workplace practices associated with zero hour contracts, along with data covering flexibility, pay insecurity, workers ability to assert their rights and workers health and wellbeing.
With figures rising over the last 20 years, The Office for National Statistics estimated that last year around 4% of people (approximately 1.2 million) in employment were on zero hour contracts. The research found that zero hours contracts are not grounded in a single piece of legislation but have been created by gaps and loopholes in current protection, and a perceived demand for flexibility from employers and individuals. The ambiguity between ‘employee’ and ‘worker’ status makes the situation worse, leading to individuals being unclear about their rights.
Co-author of the research and Director of the Institute of Employment Research at the University of Warwick, Professor Chris Warhurst said: “Whilst the UK has witnessed cross-party support for flexibility in the labour market, the evidence demonstrates that the use of zero hours contracts has brought about a significant degree of risk for workers.
“Zero hours contracts have become emblematic of the high levels of insecurity, low pay and vulnerability experienced by many workers. This calls into question whether these contracts offer the kind of labour market solution that is either desirable or sustainable for the future.”
While there have been calls for zero hours contracts to be banned, academics say the lack of legislation makes this difficult to achieve and that a multifaceted approach is now needed to address the issue.
“The solutions lie in addressing the fault lines in insecure contracts,” says Warwick co-author and researcher Gill Dix. “There is a need for legislation which would offer workers a degree of security, such as on shifts or guaranteed hours. It is also vital to alleviate the confusion between ‘worker’ and ‘employee’ status, and to continue explore whether a single employee status would provide the optimum solution. But we also need to address manager motivation in using these contracts, and associated poor treatment of workers.”
The research identifies significant barriers to zero hours contract workers asserting their rights to challenge unfair or illegal employment practices. Academics say that these barriers can be attributed to the ambiguity over employment status and what rights they are entitled to, but also to fears among individuals about raising concerns with their employers.
“People are often not aware that they are on zero hours contracts until a problem occurs, such as a repeated loss of shifts, maternity leave access or questions around holiday pay,” continues Professor Warhurst. “What is also clear from the evidence is that workers on zero-hour contracts may feel unable to raise concerns around their contracts due to fear, for example, of having their work reduced or withdrawn completely – so called ‘zeroing down’. We need to look at strengthening the enforcement that supports individual workers in accessing justice for unfair treatment; and importantly changing the mindset of bosses around fair treatment of workers.”
Academics have set out a series of recommendations in a ReWAGE Policy Brief including new legislation to increase worker job security and reduce employer non-compliance. They suggest laws are required to include a new ‘right to minimum work periods’ set out in employment contracts, a right to reasonable amount of notice and full compensation in the event of shift cancellations, a right to switch to a contract which reflects normal hours worked with appropriate qualification and reference periods. In addition, workers should have the right to be accompanied, such as by a union rep, in meetings discussing changes to their contract.
Other recommendations set out in the Policy Brief include:
- Strengthen UK labour enforcement practices through legislation, ensuring compliance, and increasing advice and information for workers, including increasing the capacity of Health and Safety Executive inspectors nationally and locally.
- Align changes in the law to existing or forthcoming laws, the latter including the right for eligible workers to request a predictable contract. Legal changes should be supported by a statutory code of practice for reference in employment tribunals.
- Improving management practices through specific training, campaigns and corporate reporting.
- Encourage good practice amongst employers, such as consideration of all forms of flexible working arrangements (not just zero hours contracts), transparency around work availability, available work patterns, and all aspects of remuneration and compensation, plus other measures to promote the fair treatment of workers and avoidance of discriminatory practices.