Student contracts would destroy justification for zero-hours employment
Zero-hours contracts are more popular amongst students than you might imagine. Why? Because these arrangements suit us. With a heavy workload, the potential for a week off is considered essential to some. But. As we expect others to recognise our plight of astronomical tuition fee debt, we must consider the uncertainty that the majority of those employed in this manner face. While the Resolution Foundation say that in the last quarter of 2016 the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts was 905,000, the latest ONS statistics suggest that in November, zero-hours contracts in the UK totalled 1.7m (6% of all employment contracts).
Interestingly, the Resolution report did note that since the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the increase in zero-hours contracts has slowed markedly. Another contributory factor they suggested was the reputational damage it was beginning to cause firms – something easy to understand when considering Mike Ashley’s record for example. However slow growth in these contracts has become, the fact remains that in the final quarter of last year 100,000 more zero-hours contracts were signed. Following the report, the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, called for the UK to follow the example of New Zealand and ban what he described as “hire and fire contracts”.
It is important to recognise the potential volatility of these contracts. Being unable to guarantee a wage when there is rent to pay, and significantly children to care for (something most students don’t have to think about) can be not just a financial, but a huge psychological strain. Unquestionably immoral, practices like this are surely detrimental to long-term business models in terms of maintaining brand reputation. There is though, still an appetite for relaxed employment. For example, the report suggested that nearly half of those who had signed zero-hours contracts in the last year had been between the ages of 55 and 64. They are valued by some as enabling “a flexible transition from full-time work to retirement”. The ONS survey acknowledges similarly, that outside the 16-24 bracket, the age-group in which zero-hours contracts are most common is 50-64.
The well-being of those backed up by a lifetime of experience, while imperative, cannot be considered more important than those in the early stages of work, nor should the popularity of these contracts within this age group be used to disguise other incontestably negative figures. Quality of opportunity in employment also comes under scrutiny in the survey, and it records that average weekly-hours-worked on a zero-hours contract still trail the overall employment average by some distance. Job security is hardly robust either, as 61% of people on zero-hours contracts have been with their employer less than two years. Perhaps most strikingly, 32% of those employed in this way explicitly stated a desire for more hours whether in the same, alternative, or even additional job!
The gaping holes in the arguments for zero-hours contracts cannot be ignored, but the fact remains that students who often feel pressure for any experience following graduation have a distinguishable need for flexible work. Since 2013, the average proportion of people in higher education who are on zero-hours contracts has been about 20%. The alternatives aren’t few when considering the UK workforce as a whole. Indeed, of those in flexible working arrangements most are not on zero-hours contracts. Jobshare, on-call, and 9-day fortnight contracts are just some examples which show employers observe a need for non-standard hiring practices.
With this in mind, a potential option which the government could endorse is the introduction of ‘student contracts’. Like student bank accounts, this would allow a greater flexibility than otherwise, and would avoid non-students being exploited through the same means by which students can be liberated. Whether this functioned on a similar zero-hours basis, an arrangement certainly less threatening to students, would also be up for question. One potential system could rely on a ‘zero-obligation, minimum entitlement’ policy. This would mean students are neither pressured to work, nor denied the hours they need to support an academic lifestyle which can be both hectic and expensive. That might lead to a greater number of student employees who could cover for one another, something which in turn would avoid the necessity to hire temps in peak months.
Student-friendly contracts already exist in lots of students’ unions, where student staff make up a large percentage of the employ. Such arrangements are sympathetic to the university timetable, and assessment obligations, particularly exams and dissertation projects. If a student contract were taken up by a company it would both increase their rep amongst young people – something clearly important given student discount offers – and allow a greater confidence about employing students in general. This could even be extended to existing internship programs, allowing students to be paid to gain essential experience alongside their studies, which in the past has often been done on a voluntary basis. Overall though, a student contract would mean that our age-group cannot be used as a compensatory example, allowing the continuation of those really suffering in zero-hours employment.