Zero Hours employment contracts have been a thorny issue for several years now, attracting a great deal of criticism from the public. The Government have responded in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill which is now making its way through Parliament.
It has not been widely publicised, but the Government's position has actually changed significantly on this issue. The Zero Hours Contracts Bill was proposed on 24 June 2013 but never made it past the stage of a first reading and never became law. In this Bill, the proposal was to outlaw all employment contracts which had typical features of zero hours contracts, such as:
Whereas the old law banned these contracts altogether, the new Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill takes a different approach. The definition of a zero hours contract is broadly similar but the new Bill only bans contracts which require the employee to only work for one employer. This would (in theory) leave an employee free to seek another job and earn at least reasonable wages.
This change in the law won't do much to help the Government's employment statistics (after all, an employee with two jobs is arguably preventing another jobseeker from becoming employed) but there are other implications which might be more concerning to both employees and employers.
Under the first Bill the change was clear even if it was not good for employers, who would have been required to guarantee minimum working hours. Under the new Bill there is the potential for great uncertainty and dispute between employees and employers. On the one hand, employees will want to seek the maximum number of hours from whichever employer to increase their wages. On the other hand, employers will want the flexibility to be able to change their shift patterns and fill vacant hours as needed. Employees find balancing shift patterns hard enough as it is, and is difficult to see how the position will become any easier.
It is likely that we will see more disputes over working hours as employees try to maximise their working time, and employers attempting to discipline or even dismiss employees who are not available for the shifts employers require. For employers it is vital that they review any zero hours contracts they currently have, and spend some time considering how they will manage the issue in the future.
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