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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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