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Zero-hours contracts are here to stay

The controversy that is zero-hours contracts rumbles on. Despite some calls for banning them, the government has issued its latest indication of support for these arrangements which it says have a place in the labour market.

It seems that zero-hours contracts (under which employees’ hours are not guaranteed) are here to stay – for now at least. But the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has announced that exclusivity clauses in these contracts which prevent employees from looking for work elsewhere will be outlawed. This is intended to clamp down on “less scrupulous” employers who have abused the system.

The problem is that it is a toothless ban. An employee who complains about an exclusivity clause can be sacked with no recourse. Before the ban, if there was an exclusivity clause, an employee who worked for another employer was in breach of contract and needn’t be offered more work by the old employer. After the ban, if there is an exclusivity clause, an employee who works for another employer isn’t in breach of contract any more (because the clause will be deemed void), and still needn’t be offered more work by the old employer – because it’s still a zero-hours contract.

Zero hour contracts remain a hotly debated issue. Some people think the balance of power remains too much in employers’ favour and that employees working under zero-hours contracts are unfairly abused by a proportion of employers. But at the same time, it’s recognised that these contracts are delivering work which might not otherwise be offered.

Caught in the middle of this are businesses which must weigh up the practical, financial – and moral – implications of having a supremely flexible workforce. There’s no single, simple answer. Being reasonable is probably the best position to take.