Over the past 5 years zero-hours contracts have become a major talking point in the UK, with a raft of negative coverage in the media as the number of people employed on them balloons; just last week it was reportedthat the number of people on zero contracts in the UK had reached a new record high of 910,000 workers.

The overwhelming majority of press stories have been extremely negative (and understandably so), highlighting an attrition in workers’ rights and job security and leading to the term becoming a byword for unscrupulous and exploitative employers.

Zero-hours contracts featured heavily in the 2015 UK election. Ed Milliband’s Labour party campaigned with a promise that they would outlaw them and incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron admitted during a debate he would not be able to afford to live on one. Since 2015 several major employers have been asked to appear before government select committees to defend their use and major unions in the UK (in particular Unite and the GMB) have continuously spoken up for them to be banned.

New Zealand, indeed, did take this step, passing a bill in 2016 which outlawed zero-hours contracts, stipulating that employers must guarantee a minimum number of hours work each week and that workers can refuse extra hours without repercussions.

In Kadence’s call centre in London we have a talented and diverse team of interviewers, some of whom would simply not be able to work here without a zero-hours contract; from the drummer in a band who needs work between tours, the aspiring fashion designer having to pay the bills while designing a new collection or the student who can work certain days during term time, full time during the holidays and not at all for a couple of months while preparing for and taking exams.

The contract suits them all perfectly as they can balance this job with other commitments, choosing the hours they work on a week by week basis without any guilt that they are letting their employer down or having to approach HR to ask for leave.

The overwhelming consensus from my employees here is that they work at Kadence because of, not in spite of, the flexibility and are happy with the number of hours they work each week, accepting the counter balance that there is more instability than on a permanent contract (indeed - one person’s “instability” is another’s “flexibility”). Indeed I personally loved my zero-hours contract in my younger days as an interviewer in a call centre - even if it was for mainly selfish, “first world” reasons such as being able to take the summer off to travel around Europe or even a cheeky, guilt-free Monday off after going to a festival the previous weekend.

So if we speak up for zero-hours contracts are we defending the indefensible? Or can we shed some light on another, more positive side to this much-maligned development in the labour market?

It is however important to recognise that a zero-hours contract will only work if there is trust between both parties. It is the duty of employers to ensure that it is not being exploited as a tool to unfairly reduce workers’ hours and company overheads. For example, working in a factory or warehouse where production is standardised, or a retailer with fixed opening hours and predictable labour requirements, the justification for imposing a zero-hours contract appears to be heavily weighted towards the needs of the employer rather than employee. 

This is where Market Research differs. With fieldwork projects that run for only a few weeks and requiring a different number of interviews in a variety of different languages and time-zones to be completed, it is commercially near-impossible for a company to retain a full-time interviewing team. The number of workers needed at any given time is highly variable and flexibility from employees becomes key.

Because of this, the use of zero-hours contracts in market research call centres has become accepted practice over the last 10 – 15 years. With the skills learned as a CATI interviewer completely transferable and flexible contracts standard, we can actively work with other call centres to find work for our employees elsewhere should we have no shifts for them. While one call centre has no work there will likely be two or three others looking for interviewers to work on their projects at the same time. 

Four ways to fairly use Zero-Hours Contracts

  • Be completely open and transparent with employees in regards to the nature of the contract and regularity of work.

  • Offer employees increased flexibility over their working hours versus a salaried member of staff. If the employer cannot guarantee work throughout the whole year it is only fair that employees cannot and should not be expected to be available to employers at all times.

  • Share your talent pool; work with similar employers or recruitment agencies to find staff employment elsewhere during periods where work is low.

  • Match employee benefits to those of salaried staff.

Employer responsibility is something we take very seriously when employing people on zero-hours contracts. This starts with informing candidates of the potential downsides to a zero-hours contract, as well as the positives, in order to ensure that they make an educated decision about working here. The aim is always to employ people for whom the benefits of flexible working hours will far outweigh any disadvantages. And before we paint ourselves as holier than thou - this isn’t entirely altruistic – we’re looking to establish long-term relationships with our interviewers, and we’re not going to secure their loyalty if we don’t enjoy a relationship of trust.

Despite the negative media surrounding them, the zero-hours contract can provide positive flexibility to a wide range of people: The creative types and students looking to balance work with other commitments; or perhaps someone involved in a start-up venture they are waiting to get off the ground; to someone who wants to ease themselves back into work after a break without having to commit themselves to a permanent contract; or those who wish to embrace the millennial concept of the “portfolio career”.

Zero-hours is certainly not for everyone; the unpredictable nature of the work means it will almost certainly not be right for someone who is in genuine need of full time employment (indeed we are always wary when approached by the Job Centre to place people with us as we cannot guarantee permanent work), but we are always more than happy to take on any candidate on if the contract is right for them and they are right for us.

Is the zero-hours contract open to abuse from unscrupulous employers? Sadly the overwhelming evidence says ‘yes’ and there have been very serious cases coming to light in the last few years.

But we believe there is room for zero-hours contracts and that they can work well, in the correct industry, for employees who can benefit for them, and for employers who use them responsibly.