Flexibility or Servitude? Britain Debates 'Zero-Hours' Contracts

A McDonald's employee in London Photograph by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Let’s say you’re offered a job. The employer won’t tell you how many, if any, hours you can work each week. But you have to be available to work whenever asked, so you can’t take a second job.

Would you accept? If so, you’d join a rapidly-growing number of British workers now employed under so-called zero-hours contracts. A report issued on Tuesday by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a human resources professionals’ group, found that as many as 1 million British workers, about 4 per cent of the labor force, are now employed under such contracts.

The practice is stirring a firestorm amid recent disclosures that employers ranging from Buckingham Palace to McDonald’s are putting staff on zero-hours contracts.

Employers say they use the arrangement to improve scheduling flexibility. “We pride ourselves on being a flexible employer, and for many of our employees, that’s why they have chosen us,” says a spokeswoman for McDonald’s in Britain, who says 90 per cent of its workers there are on zero-hours contracts. She adds that McDonald’s employees’ hours “are scheduled in advance, and we never ask people to be ‘on call.’”

Labor unions and their allies are calling for the practice to be banned or sharply curtailed, noting that labor laws in some other European countries would forbid it. The U.S., though, sets no requirements for minimum working hours, says Ken Jacobs, who heads the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley. “Unpredictability of scheduling is a major issue for fast food and retail workers in the U.S.,” he says.

The CIPD’s report found that only a minority of those employed under zero-hours contracts want to work more hours. On average, they work 19.5 hours per week, the report said.

Still, U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable has expressed concern about the prevalence of the contracts. “I think, at one end of the market, there is some exploitation taking place,” he told the BBC on Aug. 5. Cable has said the government might consider new restrictions, such as forbidding contracts that prevent workers from taking second jobs.

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