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Are zero-hours contracts working?

Why are we at university? Despite the endless possible responses, it appears the end goal for most students is securing employment. From waking up, commuting to work, sitting at a desk from 9-5, commuting home, eating, sleeping and then the whole cycle repeats itself again the next day in a monotonous dereliction of joy or spontaneity. In recent years however, there has been a dramatic increase in zero-hours contracts, with 25% of these employees being students in full-time education.

To fully investigate zero-hours contracts it is essential to understand what they are. It is common to hear in public discourse individuals such as politicians tainting public opinion and hence to hold an informed opinion, it is important to gain a clear and succinct definition of zero-hours contracts. The government and Office for National Statistics (ONS) officially defines zero-hours contracts as any employment contract that meets the following conditions:

1. The employer can call the employee whenever they desire work to be completed
2. The employer has no obligation to provide the employee with guaranteed work
3. The employee has no obligation to finish the work the employer gives them.

The employee has no obligation to finish the work the employer gives them

According to the Charted Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimates there are over 1 million individuals employed on zero-hours contracts. This accounts for around 3% of the employed workforce which at face value is a seemingly insignificant statistic. However, this figure holds an important insight for the future of both employment and careers of all students on campus. More and more employers are adopting zero-hours contracts with around two-fifths of employers believing they will be a long-term feature of the UK labour market. The rise of these contracts has raised significant concerns from politicians and trade-unions. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, pledges to ban zero-hours contracts after it was revealed that they were used at Glastonbury festival. The Labour leader argued that the pledge would be protecting workers who have no guaranteed hours. As a result, many people believe that zero-hours contracts are exploitative. By not offering a set number of working hours the allegation is that workers cannot properly budget for their future spending. This can potentially lead to financial difficulties where workers can be evicted from their rented accommodation or even incur an ever-increasing debt when they fail to be offered work by employers that do not need their labour. The impact on students can be equally dramatic. Many students do not have the luxury of having their costs subsidised by their parents, often leading to them working on zero-hours contracts to pay their way through university.

At Warwick, zero-hours contracts are prevalent with many students working this way and even some lecturers employed on ‘non-permanent’ contracts. In a situation absurdly akin to the early Victorian Era, the right to work and earn a regular flow of income is now dependent upon the employer’s discretion. The working student is now reduced to being forced to patiently wait for employment while the expenditures of daily life continue to frustrate their choices. With this financial pressure in mind, it is clear that zero-hours contracts have the potential to be highly exploitative.

However, statistics from the CIPD demonstrates that 65% of those on zero-hours contracts are happy with their employment situation. Startlingly, this is a higher proportion satisfied than those on zero-hours contracts.

In a situation absurdly akin to the early Victorian Era, the right to work and earn a regular flow of income is now dependent upon the employer’s discretion

The main thing that zero-hours contracts offer is flexibility which is intertwined within the very definition of zero-hours contracts. While it is true that zero-hours contracts can be exploitative, for students, who are often looking for part-time work, zero-hours contracts can be perfect. Emmanuella Boateng, first-year Law student at the University of Warwick, was employed at a popular coffee chain and said: “the zero-hours contract allowed me that flexibility during exam period to do my exams and still have a job.” As students, we have the ability to switch between jobs rapidly with no obligation or commitment to a single employer. Similarly, the employee is not required to finish the work they have been set and is not restricted to a single employer. This alone is useful especially when fitting part-time work around projects, assignments and exams. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine a society without zero-hours contracts in which students would be presented with a distinct choice between merely studying or the restrictions of part-time work. Zero-hours contracts break this dichotomy and allow for students to fit employment around their own personal needs and demands.

With the number of zero-hours contracts on the rise, it is difficult to envision them being absent in the future. This is not only true in the low-skilled services sector but is also apparent in sectors that are high skilled such as IT. As society moves towards an increasingly uncertain future, one thing that remains unchanging is that in all sections of society we are seeing an expansion of choice. Food, drinks, clothes, housing, transportation and many other sectors have been rapidly moving towards increasing choice and competition. This situation is not one of dog eat dog, but rather one where the individual has the final say as to what they wish to purchase. Instead of shying away from radical change, as students, we ought to embrace this new innovation in employment but be wary of the potential exploitation of the most vulnerable in society.

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