Should zero-hours contracts be banned?

Banning something that works well for some people just because others are abusing it doesn’t make sense.

The blogger Stephen Tovey recently pointed out that zero-hours contracts can work well for both employer and employee. He’s right, of course. I’ll let you into a secret. I introduced zero-hours contracts back in the last century. Did I do it to exploit desperate workers and grind the faces of the poor? Well, not quite. These were very different times. Britain was coming out of recession and the organisation I was working for was in an area with almost no unemployment. The economy was growing at close to 4 percent.  (Yes, kids, it used to do that in the olden days.) Work was plentiful and we just couldn’t find people to take up full-time or part-time permanent roles. We tried putting the wages up but all the other employers were doing that too. There just weren’t enough people looking for permanent jobs. Zero-hours contracts was a way of trying to solve our labour shortage.

I remember not being entirely convinced that it would work but we decided to give it a go anyway. (Evidence-based management this wasn’t but we had to try something.) The unions were a bit dubious but, once we’d persuaded them that we were not trying to replace full-time workers, that getting the extra help would relieve pressure on the permanent staff and that having our own pool of casual workers would stop us having to pay fees to grasping temp agencies, they were ok with it. In the end, the new contracts were a great success. They opened up opportunities for people who would not otherwise have been able to work and gave the employer access to a whole new supply of labour. As I remember, there was very little complaint from either the managers or the staff. For the most part, zero-hours contracts seemed to work well both for employer and employee.

An interesting story, perhaps, but enough of the anecdotes. What does the data say? Well, the picture is not entirely clear. 

Some of it seems to support the view that many people are happy with zero-hours contracts. According to a study by the Work Foundation earlier this year, 80 per cent of people on zero-hours contracts are not looking for another job. Only 26 per cent of them said they wanted longer hours, which implies that around three-quarters are content with their current work pattern. To put this in perspective, the Work Foundation reckoned that 200,000 people were employed on zero hours contracts, which is only 0.7 per cent of the workforce, so we are not talking about a massive group of people.

However, more recent studies suggest that these figures might be on the low side. Research by the Resolution Foundation concluded that 200,000 was almost certainly an under-estimate and a parliamentary reply last month put the number at 307,000 in the social care sector aloneThis paper from Leeds University found that in 2012, nearly 60 per cent of care workers and around a quarter of their managers and supervisors were on zero hours contracts. It is likely, then, that the 0.7 per cent figure is a conservative estimate.

What most studies seem to agree on is that the number is rising. As the Work Foundation’s figures show, the use of zero-hours contracts broadly reflects the state of the economy. 

The numbers fall as the economy improves, there is a slight rise during the slowdown of the early 2000s and then a steep rise during and after the financial crisis. This suggests that firms are, to an extent, using zero-hours contracts to avoid making the commitment of taking on permanent staff when orders are volatile and uncertain.

Zero-hours contracts are used predominantly for unskilled or semi-skilled labour. The further you go up the income scale, the less likely you are to be on one. 

The relatively high figure for professionals looks like an anomaly but I suspect it conceals a wide variation in earnings. In the professional occupations, part-timers earn, on average, higher hourly rates than their full-time counterparts. Among some of the professionals on zero-hours contracts are probably a few very highly paid people who work when they feel like it and others who have been made redundant and have joined the growing army of desperate odd jobbers.

And this probably reflects the wider pattern. Zero-hours contracts are like part-time work, temporary work, interim contracts and self-employment. When the economy is good and there is plenty of employment, they give people more flexibility to work when and where they like. For those with highly marketable skills, income from a variety of sources or a spouse as the main earner, they enable people to pick and choose the sort of work they do.

On the other hand, when the economy is in the doldrums and the workforce under-employed, zero-hours contracts mean uncertainty and fear. For those with lower skill levels or for whom the zero hours job is the main household income, the precariousness of their situation can be terrifying.

There is evidence that, in some areas, the element of choice in the zero-hours contract has almost disappeared for the employee. The Resolution Foundation found that employees faced the threat of 'zeroing-down' – so if they refused to work then they wouldn’t be offered work in the future. The study concluded:

[I]t is clear that for the majority of those employed on zero-hours contracts this freedom and choice are more apparent than real. For those individuals who require a minimum number of working hours per week to ensure their family is financially secure or those who, confronting severe power imbalances in the workplace, fear that turning down hours as and when offered will result in future work being withdrawn, life on a zero-hours contract is one of almost permanent uncertainty.

It is for these reasons that some, like Labour’s Andy Burnham, have called for a ban on zero-hours contracts. That would be a bit premature though. It’s rather like the ban on contractors in government which was proposed last year. Banning something that works well for some people just because others are abusing it doesn’t make sense. Zero-hours contracts serve a purpose, just as interims, part-time workers and contractors do. In any case, some employment lawyers reckon that an outright ban would be difficult to implement.

There is clearly still a lot we don’t know about the extent of zero-hours contracts and how wide-ranging the abuse associated with them really is. Vince Cable’s review is therefore a good start, though some have called for a more detailed investigation.

There’s a more fundamental point here though. Zero-hours contracts are being used to exploit people for the same reasons that wages are being held down, in-work benefits have gone up and self-employment is at record levels. The economy is in the doldrums, the workforce is under-employed and the balance of power between employer and employee has swung in the employer’s favour. Like so many other aspects of the labour market, the exploitation of people on zero-hours contracts is a symptom of the wider economic collapse. Ban zero-hours contracts and the problems associated with them will probably re-appear in another form.

Flip Chart Rick is the author of the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog, where this post originally appeared.

Domino's Pizza is one of the companies that has made widespread use of zero-hours contracts, with around 90% of its 23,000 UK staff on the contracts. Photograph: Getty Images.

Flip Chart Rick is the author of the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA