Signing up a pool of casual staff on zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) is, for some, a simple way to counter this ebb and flow. With a core team of skilled full-time workers, printing business owners have the option to draft in extra labour to plug the gaps during times of higher demand, in fields such warehouse work, finishing, fulfilment, etc.
It’s convenient too for some of the workers who sign up – whose lives could be made unpredictable by childcare, education or illness. The flexibility offered by ZHCs can help to accommodate their lives’ demands where work would normally impede them.
But it’s a double-edged sword – too much flexibility leaves companies short of staff when shifts are turned down, and workers can find themselves going long stretches without a hint of work, both sides wracked with uncertainty.
ZHCs, then, are not perfect, but they are both a symptom of and the remedy for the issues that exist in the modern employment market. So, is it possible to tame the worst excesses of ZHCs and find a centre ground that works for employer and employee?
HR advisor for the BPIF Linda Harrison says: “Recruitment on a ZHC within the print industry is usually only ever dictated by peaks, or unexpected spikes of activity which need an immediate, but short-term resource to manage the workload. It works well as a quick fix but is not a normal recruitment practice for BPIF members.
“The general downside to any casual or zero-hours contract is of course that there is no intrinsic loyalty or ‘buy in’ by the individual to the company ethos as they see themselves as entirely transient labour.
“Employers do not consider a need to invest in any personal development for the individual as the work period is short lived, and this has real, but not immediately visible consequences for all businesses.”
This lack of loyalty is an intrinsic flaw that detracts from ZHCs’ value to printers – the industry can only thrive if it invests in a future through trainees, apprenticeships and succession plans. ZHCs are not taken up with the long term in mind, so their continued prevalence could leave print with a difficult future.
Hesitant cynicism has been central to most parties’ consideration of ZHCs – the UK government has outlawed exclusivity clauses so ZHC workers are free to pursue other work when not on shift, but Theresa May’s administration has yet to face down the real dangers of the burgeoning gig economy.
Some are not quite so grey, as with the Welsh government’s equality committee whose latest report has recommended that Wales’ Labour administration should not give work, grants or loans to companies that make use of ZHCs in a bid to tackle in-work poverty.
Assembly member John Griffiths, who chairs the committee, says: “We heard evidence that it is particularly the combination of ZHCs and low wages that has played a role in increasing levels of in-work poverty.
“Our report recommends that the Welsh government place requirements on any company receiving support to minimise the use of zero-hours contracts. As part of this, the government should provide support to those companies wishing to move away from the use of ZHCs.
“Evidence from professor Caroline Lloyd at Cardiff University shows that ZHCs are ‘flexible for the employer, not the employee’ and a participant in our focus group described them as ‘awful things that cause people stress and anxiety’.”
Nearly 50% of large companies in the UK are using ZHCs – with the number of workers signed up nearly reaching the 1 million mark according to the Office for National Statistics. With the numbers spiralling upwards, research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has found an increased enthusiasm from employers to offer more secure contracts to their ZHC staff.
CIPD head of public policy Ben Willmott says: “Our latest research in this area has found that over two-thirds of employers support the right to request a stable contract, to allow ZHC workers to request regular or guaranteed hours.
“However, one of the main challenges is around helping employees to understand the existing law and make informed choices that best suit their circumstances.
“The solution is for government to support employers to offer better guidance and more effective enforcement of existing employment rights, which would help inform and reassure employers and individuals, and help them choose an arrangement that is right for them.”
For printers and their staff, that guidance is there at union Unite, where national officer Lousia Bull has spearheaded campaigns at big name publishers such as Penguin Random House to negotiate en masse conversions for agency-hired staff on ZHCs to permanent contracts at the company.
“In our sector, ZHCs started on security and cleaning, then moved into bindery and finishing,” she says. “They have now moved into pre-press and can be found everywhere but the print machine itself – and they can even be found in the printing facilities owned by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers.
“ZHCs can be a race to the bottom and lead to a two-tier workforce. Collective bargaining is key, so we are telling ZHC workers that they have to organise in order to get their desires across.
“You must make sure you are getting full rights and companies must be prepared to hire their staff internally and stop depending on the agencies that utilise these ZHCs. We will work to see this agency labour transferred to full-time work.”
Flaws of ZHCs should not blind us to their benefits
Seamus Nevin, head of policy research, Institute of Directors
When zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) have been in the headlines, it’s often for all the wrong reasons. But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule, and the flexibility ZHCs provide benefits not just businesses but employees as well.
First and foremost, how do people on these contracts view their position? Most are higher paid than full-time workers while ONS figures suggest that three quarters of ZHC workers are happy with their terms. Indicatively, in 2016 McDonald’s offered staff the chance to swap to a guaranteed hours contract but 80% opted to remain on ZHCs. Clearly, in most cases, the deal works for both sides.
Where staff want a minimum threshold in hours, employers should aim to accommodate this. But we must avoid the pitfalls of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, especially when new technology provides greater scope for accommodating differing needs.
Over recent years, labour patterns have diversified, and this trend has helped promote a more inclusive workforce. Single parents, disabled people and those returning from maternity leave have all benefited from the UK’s liberal labour market model.
This flexibility is also a huge asset for the economy. It’s one of the key reasons unemployment has reached and remained at record lows, even as other economies struggled following the financial crisis. In some cases – charity shops, start-ups, and the care sector – firms would not survive without the ability to adapt to varying customer demand through ZHCs.
Government has also taken steps to address concerns specific to ZHCs. Notably, the practice of ‘exclusive’ contracts – which prevented workers without guaranteed hours from entering other employment – has rightly been outlawed. We should, nonetheless, remain alert to any potential issues as the world of work continues to change.
So, while ZHCs may not suit everybody’s needs, that’s no reason to dismiss the tangible benefits they can offer firms and staff alike.
Do you use zero-hours contracts in your business?
Terrye Teverson, managing director, KCS Print
“We do not use them. I take a personal stance on offering full-time work unless someone specifically asks for part-time. We have 28 staff, with one working from home and another part-time for childcare. We never considered ZHCs and I do not expect us to while I am managing director. I suppose a draw for companies is the ability to lay off staff without much cost in slow periods, but because of that there is an inherent threat in the arrangement. No loyalty is shown either way, it is very unstable, which doesn’t sit well with me.”
David Laybourne, interim managing director, Go Inspire Solutions
“There are a number of reasons we do not use them in the group, but the underlying principle is that if we expect commitment from our staff, then they should expect commitment from us. The complexity of our work demands stability and a committed workforce that has been trained in specialised skills. I see how it could be different for companies that depend on unskilled labour, I do not think we want to go back to times like the 70s when workers would be clustered outside the gates wondering if there would be any work.”
Greg Girard, director and technical services manager, DDL Group
“ZHCs are something we use, but we have been trying to get away from them. We do not feel it is fair on the employees, so we wanted to remove them, but it was actually some of our ZHC employees who wanted to keep them – such as single parents who need the flexibility, or people on benefits who need to keep their hours below the threshold. We offer one-, two-, three- and six-month contracts alongside ZHCs for casual staff in warehouse work, fulfilment and sortation. We are happy to explore all possibilities.”