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Zeroing in on zero-hours work

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By Stephen Fineman


The growth of zero-hours work contracts has grabbed the headlines recently. The contracts offer no guaranteed work hours and can swing between feast (over work) and famine (literally nil hours). Employees are expected to be available as and when needed. If they refuse (which in principle they can) they risk being labelled as unreliable and overlooked the next time round.

No fixed hours means no fixed pay, and traditional benefits, such as holiday entitlements and sickness pay, can be minimal or non-existent. Zero-hours contracts have been a mainstay of the low paid service industry (McDonald’s has admitted to hiring all but a tiny proportion of its staff on that basis), and are common to social care, hotels, retail outlets, and even UK’s House of Commons and the hallowed confines of Buckingham Palace.

The status of zero-hours sharply divides commentators — political and academic — broadly along left wing/right wing lines. Three perspectives are discernible:

  1. Zero-hours are exploitative. They place undue power in the hands of the employer to do almost what they like with employees, providing them with little security or work predictability. It’s turning back the clock on workers’ rights.
  2. Zero-hours are a manifestation of the 21st century patterns of work flexibility. They suit many people’s lifestyles and are a lot better than being unemployed.
  3. Concern about zero-hours is a distraction. They are a symptom of an economy adjusting to a recession and to little or no growth. Fix the economy and zero-hours will wither on the vine.


These contentions contain a degree of truth and degree of fallacy. There are employers who take advantage of a large pool of unemployed; the work-desperate are at their disposal. Zero-hours contracts help an employer slim their overheads and extract, in Marxian terms, more surplus-value from a large reserve of labour. Anecdotally, we know this can be oppressive to workers. They are unsure about what they will earn in a week, yet still have regular bills to pay (banks regard them as not credit worthy). They cannot risk absence for illness or to care for others in case it is used against them. Some feel treated like dirt.

Zero-hours endanger the hard won rights of organized labour, so it is not surprising that unions are unnerved at the prospect. It is offensive. But zero-hours without the ‘contract’ word attached to it has long been the fate of low-skilled and migrant labour at the margins of Western capitalism, and far less marginal in parts of the world where the jobless gather each morning on street corners, by shipyards, and in front of factory gates in the hope that today they will be chosen for work.

The difficulty for Western societies is when zero-hours looks as if they are going mainstream, and here the evidence suggests that it is increasing but is proportionately small. However, small numbers do not blunt the moral case against major employers who use zero-hours as vehicles of convenience to increase already substantial profits on the backs of a vulnerable workforce. The situation seems different for small and medium sized enterprises that, without zero-hours, or some variant on them, would probably go bust. I am thinking here of the small workshop, the restaurant, bar, garden centre, plumbers, builders, or seaside accommodation where seasonal and weekly fluctuations in business make planning very difficult.

Flexibility has become the mantra of the postmodern workplace and is often positively coupled with zero-hours. But flexible for whom? For instance, zero-hours are concentrated in the social care sector, but they undermine the continuity and familiarity that clients crave, and that care workers consider vital. The unpredictably of zero-hours — sporadic, irregular work — is challenging for families dependent on a single income or for single parents trying to juggle child care work. As one zero-hourer explained, “A job is better than no job, but not to know if you are working when you wake up is much sadder.” On the other hand, there are workers who are untroubled by zero-hours. They fit comfortably with their lifestyles, such as students dovetailing paid work with their studies and retirees adding extra income and activity to their later years

It is a comforting but naive assertion that zero-hours are no more than an unfortunate spike on the economic landscape, and when markets pick up zero-hours will fade. The very existence of zero-hours seeds worker disaffection and distrust and adds to consumer lack of confidence. Zero-hours contracts have become part of the recovery problem, not simply a symptom of it. And I suspect that now the zero-hours’ genie is out of the bottle, it is not easily reinserted; it serves too well some business interests. Zero hour on zero-hours is some way off.

Stephen Fineman is Professor Emeritus at the School of Management, University of Bath, UK and the author of Work: A Very Short Introduction. He has a long and distinguished reputation in the field of organizational behaviour, publishing specialized monographs, edited books and textbooks, all directly or indirectly concerned with the world of work.

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Image credits: (1) By Mimi-chan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; (2) By Spc. William J. Taylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. brett sidaway

    Interesting blog. I have friends who have started their careers on zero hours and have been promoted quickly and into traditional contracted employment. I can also imagine it suits mothers/carers/students etc. As Stephen indicates, the attitude of the employer is more relevant than zero hours per se – but it still feels like an worrying development that is ripe for exploitation.

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