Are you on a zero hours contract? They’re also known as casual contracts, and they’re popular in the service industry. If you watched the Leadership Debate on ITV last week, you’ll probably have heard what the political parties think about zero hour contracts; Labour think they’re exploitative, the Conservatives don’t like businesses abusing them and the Lib Dems put forward a bill to ban exclusivity clauses in them. This doesn’t tell us much about what they actually are and why people get so worked up about them, though.

What are zero hours contracts?

In short, they’re a flexible work contract that enables you to work when you want to. Employers don’t have to offer you work on a regular basis or guarantee a set number of hours a week, and they can cancel your shifts at short notice. They do, however, have to pay at least minimum wage and let you take annual leave. These casual contracts make sense to businesses that work seasonally, like sports venues, or those that have regular busy and quiet periods, like theatres or events catering.

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Why do people hate them?

Well, not being able to guarantee regular work is a big problem. Budgeting is a bitch when you’re not sure how much money you’ll have week to week. Most companies won’t offer sick-pay on zero hours contracts so if you’re unwell, you’re on your own. Holiday pay is often worked into the hourly rate, meaning you receive it in increments throughout the year, when you work, not while you’re on annual leave.

Exclusivity clauses, forbidding employees from accepting work with other companies, are fortunately rare but they do happen. I’ve met people juggling two or three different zero hours contracts, just to get enough work to pay the bills.

Some employers penalise you if you turn down shifts or have limited availability, usually by offering you less work as a consequence. Alternatively, if you’re available, you can end up working over 50 hours a week during busy times. The maximum 48 hours per week, as covered by the Working Time Directive, is averaged over 17 weeks, so businesses can get around it, and if they can’t there is often pressure on employees to opt out.

While some companies give you lots of notice of what shifts you are expected to work, others expect you to turn up at a moment’s notice. This leaves little time to rearrange plans or organise childcare. You’re not entitled to a notice period if your employer decides to cancel your contract, either.

What’s good about them?

Mainly, it’s the flexibility. This type of contract suits students and working parents in particular, because it’s the sort of work that fits into your life. You work when you’re available and don’t when study or family dictate otherwise. It’s a great way to gain experience without tying yourself to one particular job. You get new skills, but you have freedom to pursue other things.

In most cases, the companies that offer zero hours contracts operate outside of 9-5 hours. This is great if you’re at university, share childcare with a partner who works regular office hours, or you need to pick up some extra work to fund a holiday, new house or travelling.

Is there an alternative?

Kind of. If you need flexible work, casual contracts are the best option. If you don’t fancy it, though, some employers offer a sort of permanent-seasonal contract. You’d be obliged to work a certain number of weeks a year and those weeks would be largely set by your employer, but you’d have more security than a zero hours contract. Businesses in university towns, and areas with a thriving tourist industry will be more open to this type of contract. It never hurts to ask!

So, are they worth getting worked up over?

Erm, I’m not sure. Yes, there are businesses that exploit them, and lots of people who’d prefer to have more predictable, secure work, but they have their uses. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about them. As a student, I worked under a couple of zero hours contracts and they were a great option at the time, but I wouldn’t like to rely on one now. I’m pretty sure that, while their use had lead to a reduction in unemployment figures, they contribute to the high level of underemployment in the country.

If you want a flexible way of earning some extra money, but aren’t too stressed by a regular income, then go for it.

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