Labour has reaffirmed its plans to rid the UK of zero-hours contracts. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell pledged at the Labour Party conference to ban the controversial contracts “to make sure every employee has a guaranteed number of hours a week”.
The number of people working on a zero-hours contract has increased by 358% since 2012 – and represents almost 3% of the UK workforce.
Zero-hours contracts do not guarantee a minimum number of hours – meaning the worker is effectively “on call” to work as and when they’re needed. The work offered is unstable with no long-term guarantee of hours or future employment. And this can be a major challenge to career progression.
Despite the insecurities associated with this type of contract, workers on zero-hours contract are classed as “employed”, which is why the UK can claim the joint highest employment rate since records began, with 76.1% of people in work.
It’s been argued that zero-hours contracts are used mostly by those in full-time education along with semi-retired people. But figures show that more than 23% of people on zero-hours contracts have worked for their employer for more than five years.
As part of our research, we interviewed 35 zero-hours contract workers and heard how this precarious employment situation was affecting their career prospects. They told us how working on zero-hours contracts meant ending their aspiration for a career progression. As one of our interviewees explained:
I’ve got no promotional prospects at all. When I first took the job on I went in to see the principal of the college and I said I’d really like to find out what the promotion possibilities are as I’d really like to be on a permanent contract at some point in the future. And I was basically told there really aren’t any.
No training or development
Zero-hours contracts are not designed with training and development in mind because the workers are considered to be temporary – needed only when necessary. So the opportunity to take on extra responsibilities – which are relevant for any career progression – are not made available to workers.
Those on zero-hours contract are often given minimal training and some are asked to pay for their training themselves. This lack of training and development restricts the kinds of jobs workers can do and limits their choices. So irrespective of the length of time a person has been working with an employer, they make no progress, as explained by one of the people we interviewed:
There is no career progression…[I’ve] been in the job for six and a half years. Since then the role hasn’t changed, no promotion. I’ve got no promotional prospects at all. I asked if I could perhaps go on a course, and I got an absolute no for that one.
Most zero-hour contract workers are not offered job appraisal, nor investments in longer-term development, or opportunity to discuss their career prospects. One of the people we spoke with explains more:
Zero hours contracts don’t lend themselves to career development at all, because it’s very rarely you have an appraisal or probationary meeting or anything like that. You don’t really have regular meetings, because I guess the employer feels like you can just quit at any point anyway, so what’s the point?
Workers also often lack the discretion and autonomy to contribute to the decision making of the business or organisation and feel unable to give feedback on job satisfaction. One of our interviewees explained how they had lots of ideas about how to improve the organisation, but that no one was interested in listening to them:
I like being proactive and coming forward with creative solutions, but I feel like I’ve put forward a couple of proposals to the management [but] I don’t think they want to know necessarily. So I don’t feel like I’ve got a proper voice within the organisation. I feel quite vulnerable…if I make too much of a fuss I’m worried they might throw me out. I need to tread very, very carefully.
Every worker needs to be able to progress in their jobs and be offered opportunities to progress. This is particularly important given that, more generally, a lack of career progression is one of the key reasons most employees leave their job.
Any employment contract that abuses this important workers’ right should be banned. And Labour’s plans to rid the UK of zero-hours contracts is one step closer to ensuring every worker gets a guaranteed number of hours each week, which will allow more people to gain security and fulfilment from their day-to-day working lives.