Why is everyone going mental about zero-hours contracts?

Sanity needed.

Last week’s revelations about the extent of the use of zero-hours contracts in the UK caused an almighty uproar in the national press and only a minority of commentators made anything that could be described as a measured response. The government’s reaction, that it "would examine" the issue, is the correct one. Zero-hours contracts do need to be examined and managed more effectively, but they certainly ought not to be banned, as several commentators suggested last week.

Even those commentators most hardened against the idea of zero-hours contracts did concede that there were some situations in which their use was appropriate. Indeed, it’s hard to see how some industries could operate without at least some use of zero-hours contracts. At an outdoor tourist attraction, for example, a good weather forecast could see a fivefold increase in custom, but staffing in accordance with that maximum capacity would be prohibitively expensive. However, that is not to say that there is no problem, and it is not just the government which needs to examine how these contracts are used.  Employers too, need to look at how they implement zero-hours contracts. If their use is as widespread as is claimed, then any abuse of them has the potential to have a perceptible impact on the economy as a whole.

The most serious issue is that of employers discriminating against workers who refuse hours offered by their manager. There’s been no real investigation of how widespread that practice is, but no sensible businessperson could justify such behaviour. Unless there is a real shortage of staff, the only inconvenience caused by an employee turning down hours is that of sending another text, or making another phone call to find a replacement. That infinitesimal saving in time certainly doesn’t make up for the negative impact of instilling anxiety and resentment in a business’s staff.

That impact will soon translate to an actual cost. From a purely financial perspective, increasing the use of zero-hours contracts may initially appear to, but using them inappropriately can have a real impact on the quality of a business’s customer service. Customer service representatives are the face of the company, and employees who begrudge the way they are treated by their employer are unlikely to make that face a very pretty one. A worker who is stressed or unprepared for work will not perform to the best of their ability, and that is the inevitable consequence of using a zero-hours contract where a full-time arrangement is more suitable. If managers feel that they need to pressure employees into accepting hours, then that is a fair indication that that is what is going on.

In many cases, it’s possible that the over-use of zero-hours contracts has come about as a reaction to worries about fluctuations in productivity and custom, thinning operating margins, and anxieties about staffing in response to these changes. It may even be down to a lack of skill amongst managers in scheduling staff appropriately. However, the technology that can be used to predict activity levels within a workplace, to schedule staff and to monitor productivity is now so advanced that such an unscientific and potentially damaging approach really ought to be a thing of the past.

Human error can be significant, and most managers have better things to do with their time than work out staffing rotas, but an automated approach leaves the manager free to work on improving the performance of their team, and identifying the training needs and potential of their staff. All of these processes can now be aided by software, and using such technology makes it immeasurably easier to accommodate different contract types within the organisation. This reduces anxieties about demand and capacity, and should make it less of a temptation for managers to over-use the zero-hours contract.

If last week’s furore demonstrated anything, it’s that clearer thinking is necessary when we consider an employer’s obligation towards their employees’ financial stability. An economy balanced towards the service industry will always require a high degree of flexibility. However, business leaders should not lose sight of the importance of employee engagement, and the impact that good morale can have on service quality. The argument against the over-use of zero-hours contracts is founded on business sense as much as upon ethics. The good news is that the technology exists to balance those obligations against the imperatives of fluctuating demand - government should do more to encourage its use.

Clearer thinking on the zero hours contract is needed. Photograph: Getty Images

Claire Richardson is VP at Verint

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage