The importance of belonging in a zero-hours contract 

Today’s Belonging Space guest blogger is Katie Fenton, our intern, who brings the perspective of a current student and future employee to look at zero-hours contracts. She finds the belonging challenges are not as straightforward as they may seem.

Looking back on the debate surrounding zero-hours contracts, it left me wondering whether they were a blessing in disguise, or just an obvious maltreatment of staff who need the flexibility or just some sort of employment.

To find a sense of belonging, our work needs to fit around the way we want to live our own lives. Zero-hours contracts allow students, parents, and those with complicated lives to be employed whilst not being tied down five days a week.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 1/3 of people on zero-hours contracts want more hours work. 

My first reaction to this was that I expected the statistic to be higher, however, being a student myself I can understand all the benefits of this contract. Students have a lot of spare time, meaning that short notice work is not a problem and they can often manage without a steady income (baked beans for dinner again).

Yet it seem students may have a somewhat sweeter deal than others. It’s important to consider whether zero-hours contracts are actually as flexible as they first appear. When employers hire staff through the contract there is no guarantee of work and when they are needed it is often at short notice. Would this be ideal for someone who desperately needs to pay the rent next month?

Although, surely having an irregular income is preferable to having no income whatsoever. An interesting article in The Guardian quotes John Cridland (CBI director-general) arguing

“The UK’s flexible job market has given us an employment rate that is the envy of other countries.”

While some people may dislike the unpredictability surrounding zero-hours contracts, there is promise in the way it provides employment.

The ONS report Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours’ (April 2014) acknowledges that zero-hours is interpreted in different ways so it is not straightforward.

Their facts and figures show the types of people on zero-hours contracts and also how widespread these contracts are:

People Employed on a Zero Hours Contract (Main Job):        697,000
Average Number of Hours worked on zero hours contract:        25
Age of most employees on zero hours contracts:        Under 25/ Over 65

“Looking at the types of people employed on “zero-hours contracts”, the Labour Force Survey shows that they are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young (16-24) or older (65 and over) age groups, perhaps reflecting a tendency to combine flexible working with education or working beyond state retirement age.” Source: ONS

The ONS figures show less middle-aged people are working within a zero-hours contract. This suggests that the type of lifestyle this provides is not ideal for family life.

It seems that a zero-hours contract is a friend to those with no pressing commitments or limitations on how much they can work, and a foe to people who need to organise their work life around a number of other responsibilities.

The zero-hours contract is of course, a two-way deal. Employers face certain business risks when taking people on through these contracts.

Will employees go the extra mile for a company that they casually work for?
Will employees be somewhat disconnected while working?What is the impact on a wider sense of belonging?

Ultimately, all these potential issues need to be addressed before the contracts begin so that problems don’t arise for both the employees and employers.

An anonymous NHS worker, previously on a zero-hours contract, reveals how this partnership can break down. She wrote a blog published by The Guardian, which gives an insightful view of how she was affected by the contract.

She was told that a quarterly meeting was “not really for people like [her]” and was then assured that she was still valued.

A sense of team collaboration and appreciation is often at the core of how people want to feel at work. Employees should not be outsiders, but the nature of zero-hour contracts can very easily push employees to the outskirts of the business.
It’s a big belonging challenge.

If zero-hours contracts are to remain beneficial and integrated successfully within the society, employers will need to adapt to the unstable issues surrounding the contracts. Whilst we want to have flexibility within our work, we also need to feel secure.

This sense of security is not always provided by the fluctuating hours and pay of the zero hours contract, but a sense of belonging within the business can definitely work to transform this.

Katie Fenton is an undergraduate reading English at Lancaster University, about to enter her final year. Katie will be writing more guest blogs for Belonging Space over the summer.

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