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Zero-hours contracts: what callers to the Acas helpline are saying - Adrian Wakeling

Monday 10 February 2014

Every year the Acas Helpline receives nearly a million calls on a wide range of employment related issues. Between June and August this year we received over 700 calls on the subject of zero-hours contracts. I had the privilege of listening to dozens of these calls. Acas will very soon be publishing a detailed discussion paper on its analysis, but, in the meantime, here is a flavour of what I found.
Adrian Wakeling Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window

Adrian Wakeling

Adrian is a Senior Policy Analyst at Acas and is part of a team responsible for informing the future strategic direction of Acas and influencing the wider debate on the value of employment relations.

Zero-hours contracts have been a hot topic in the media and amongst politicians, academics, the unions and the HR community for several months. Inevitably, people ring the Acas helpline when they have a problem, so while the arguments rage about the pros and cons of these contracts, our analysis only tells part of the story - an important part, but one part nevertheless.

Many of the people who pick up the phone to call our helpline do so because they are upset about the way they have been treated at work, unclear how to deal with a staff problem or just confused about what their rights and responsibilities are as employers or workers. This is equally true for calls about zero-hours contracts as it is about calls to do with pay, absence or disciplinary problems.

But there are two overriding themes that emerge when listening to our callers' concerns about zero-hours contracts. Firstly, they ask lots of questions about specific contractual rights - for example, whether they can turn down shifts they have been offered - and about their entitlement to things like holiday pay and maternity leave.

These issues are complicated by the lack of any legal definition of a zero-hours contract. In theory, these contracts are supposed to involve no 'mutuality of obligation' (an employer doesn't have to offer work and a worker doesn't have to accept). In practice, there are many variations on the theme of mutuality, with some workers effectively always 'on call' and others working full-time, as if they were permanent members of staff.

The second big theme is more to do with the way the employment relationship is perceived. Many workers feel they have built up a strong and, often, lasting relationship with their employer and their workplace over a period of time. They can be distressed to find that this doesn't seem to count for very much when it comes to how they are treated compared to employees on permanent contracts. As some are technically classed as workers, they may not have many of the rights afforded to employees, such as the right to redundancy pay or to claim unfair dismissal.

Many of the calls to our helpline can be easily resolved. Our helpline advisers have, as you would expect, a thorough understanding of employment rights and can often give quick and practical solutions. They stress to many callers, for example, the importance of reading and understanding their contract and not waiting until something goes wrong to check their employment status.

Hopefully, the government consultation will start the process of clarifying some of the major issues of concern - particularly around insecurity of income, awareness of rights and routes for redress. This latter point is critical, as many callers report that their employers use the threat of 'zeroing down' their hours to stop them from refusing to work shifts or asserting their employment rights.

While providing clarity about legal and contractual issues is much needed, it might also be worth starting a wider debate about what exactly constitutes a good employment relationship. Is it possible to reach a consensus on the way different contracts, and how they are used, can be made to both safeguard the wellbeing of workers and contribute to an effective and flexible economy?

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