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The problem with zero-hour contracts

By James McCrory

Monday 12 January 2015 Student Journalists

There are so many perpetual problems plaguing the British public, rendering them financially and professionally stifled. Zero-hours contracts are one major example of how the UK’s working population is being exploited and undermined, explores NUS Journalist James McCrory.

With just over 100 days left until the 2015 general election, Party Campaigns are well and truly in full flow. It is very clear, when looking at the three main parties, that vastly different approaches are being put in place to try and sway votes.

The Conservatives seem to think the way forward is through cuts, cuts, cuts, while their current cohorts the Lib Dems don’t really seem to be doing much of anything, apart from keeping to the status quo just to be on the safe side. Ed Miliband, however, seems to be taking a completely different, though more ‘traditional’ approach as he has pledged to campaign door-to-door in an attempt, perhaps, to get back to what he thinks are his ‘grassroots’.

The men at the top of these three parties have all disagreed on a great many things, such as the state and future of the countries deficit, the EU and of course who could forget immigration. These issues all matter a great deal but one can’t help but feel as if some real ‘bread and butter’ issues - such as the mistreatment of the UK’s workforce through the use of zero-hours contracts - are being given little acknowledgement.

Issues like immigration have been a major, and might I add stifling, talking point so far in the general election spectrum and it looks like they will be for the duration. It is often noticeable in the vast array of recent mainstream news packages, that when being questioned by journalists about things like immigration members of the public often gaze just above that microphone with a look of utter disinterest and at times contempt.

It is hard to recall any of these immigration based vox-pops prompting a passionate or stimulated answer. People care about these issues, but not to the extent to which they care about things that affect their daily lives and their ability or inability to plan for the future because of government decision making.

Zero-hour contracts are an emphatic example of how the government are coming up short of the mark when it comes to offering the people economic and financial security and stability. 

In an article published by The Guardian on 4 December of last year a teacher – who remained anonymous when published - wrote passionately about her experience working on zero-hours contracts between a number of institutions and the monumental challenges it brought her:

'I’ve been on zero-hours contracts for some time and it has finally got to me. I’m tired of thinking I’ve secured a future for me and my child, tired of thinking I won’t have to worry about whether we both eat or whether we have heating.

'George Osborne painted a rosy picture in his autumn statement, but he doesn’t realise what it’s like for some of us in today’s Britain, especially those on zero-hours contracts. I’m at a stage where worrying about feeding my family means I can’t sleep, to the extent I’ve been prescribed sleeping tablets.'

This is nothing short of a heartfelt illustration of the modern-day crises experienced by a great percentage of the British public. This is one case that has been brought to the fore through a mainstream media outlet, but the severity of the problem remains in shadow - out of sight, out of mind. 

So what are zero-hours contracts?

Zero-hours contracts mean that an employer doesn’t have to offer a set amount of work hours to their employee each week and that they have no obligation to offer any work to an employee. The UK Government outlines that the employee also has no obligation to accept work offered but many of these contracts stipulate the opposite.

What this means is that employers can hire a workforce of individuals on zero-hours contracts and use that workforce at their whim. Employers are able to offer working hours to people in relation to foreseen demand, and they often do this at very short notice.

So why are they such a bad thing?

This method of employment is simply unreliable and is nothing short of an exploitation of the international labour force. Employers offer out work to people when they need them, and if those individuals have already made plans or are otherwise occupied they may not be offered as much work in the future or their contract may even be terminated.

This is not a sustainable employment model through which to sustain a legitimate and enthusiastic workforce. People need to be able to know how much they will be making at the end of the month so they can make financial plans in relation to bills and general living expenses. They need to be able to plan and prioritise their work, personal life and other commitments. These elements of everyday life can only be managed through organised working schedules and legitimate contracts that permit lifestyle structure and general stability to a person.

Last year a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), found that between 558,000 and 686,000 people were on zero-hours contracts, figures which represents about 2 per cent of the UK workforce. A separate survey of employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed the number of zero-hours contracts at more than one million, with one in five employers having at least one employee on zero-hours.

This exploitative method of employment has been readily accepted by many of the country’s biggest employers including companies like Sports Direct, McDonald’s and Burger King.

Vince Cable, Lib Dem Business Secretary, has ruled out a total ban of zero-hours contracts but said that he will ensure the cessation of abuse by employers through the use of these contracts.

Labour on the other hand have went one step further pledging that if they are elected in this year’s general election they will completely ban zero-hours contracts where they exploit people, promising that workers will get fixed-hours contracts provided they are working regular hours for the year.

The issue is one of great public concern and one that has been brought to the fore of public attention recently through viral means. On 28 December Steve Thompson wrote a passionate letter to his stepson’s employer JD Wetherspoon. The public letter was a plea to end the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts following his stepsons forced exit from rented accommodation after he could no longer keep up with his payments.

The Facebook letter went viral and now has more than 13,000 likes and 14,000 shares. The comments section is filled with hundreds of stories from people who have suffered similar hardships through employment under zero-hours contracts. This is more than enough evidence to show that this is a problem that is affecting thousands, if not millions, of UK workers and it shows that the working populous of the UK are crying out for action.  

Zero-hours contracts are toxic and nothing short of dangerous, it is one of a number of issues that should, but aren’t, filling the coverage produced by the majority of mainstream media outlets and the agendas of politicians. Our next government needs to be working for the people, in the best interest of the struggling public. Political Parties in Britain and their representatives are constantly playing their political games, enjoying their one-upmanship and struggle for power. What they need to do is wake up and understand that the real struggle, the Human struggle, is what really matters.


NUS journalist for work in the lead up to the 2015 general election. Originally from Northern Ireland, I am currently a student studying Multimedia Journalism at the University of Salford in Manchester. I studied Broadcast Journalism for two years at Belfast Metropolitan College where I attained a level 5, Higher National Diploma in the subject.

I have had work published for the Salfordian, NUS and various student publications in Belfast. I have had experience working with UTV in Ireland and the BBC and I was also the Vice Chairperson of the Royal Television Society (RTS) Futures programme. I aspire now and in the future to be an activist journalist, never short of an opinion on a range of historic and contemporary issues.