24 May 2017
The BBC has reported that Matthew Taylor – Head of the government’s ongoing review into employment law and the “gig” economy – will recommend providing workers on zero-hour contracts with ‘the right to request’ guaranteed hours.
Employment law is currently littered with “the right to request”, with new parents allowed to request flexible working arrangements, and employees allowed to ask for time off to train.
But as many organisations have pointed out once again this week, the right to request is not the same as the right to receive, and there is very little to stop employers from simply refusing to provide a stable income for the more than 900,000 workers currently on zero-hour contracts.
What’s more, there is nothing to stop an employer from “zeroing out” a worker who requests guaranteed hours and could therefore be seen as ‘difficult’. Even with the right to request, that worker would still need to pay up to £1,200 to take their case to an employment tribunal.
If this ‘right to request’ takes a similar form to existing ones, then we can also expect to see a six-month qualifying period before one even has the right to ask for guaranteed hours, and for most workers to be completely unaware they have the right at all.
The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and the TUC both described the proposal as “virtually worthless” .
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This could mean close to zero action on zero-hours contracts. A ‘right to request’ guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers.”
The Institute of Employment Rights argues in our Manifesto for Labour Law that “an early priority must be to address the problem of zero-hours contracts, as part of the general regulatory framework on working time”.
One proposal the authors of our Manifesto – 25 recommendations for reform – put forth is for all workers to be provided with ‘defined-hours contracts’, which set out the minimum number of hours guaranteed either per week or per month. A percentage (up to a maximum of 10-20%) of these defined hours may be used to put the worker ‘on call’, but the worker must be paid a retainer for time spent on call.
Another solution has been put forth by Ian Mearns in his Zero Hours Contract Bill of 2014, and has since been backed by our experts. His Bill states that employers must offer fixed employment to workers on zero-hour contracts that have worked continuously for 12 weeks. He also suggests that workers should be given information on what their minimum number of working hours will be, that employers should give reasonable notice of assignments and their cancellation, and that workers should be allowed to request a move to fixed employment before 12 weeks has passed.
Crucially, however, the authors recommend that employers and trade unions should be allowed to agree to opt out of statutory law around zero-hour contracts in order to create regulations that are customised to their sector through sectoral collective bargaining.
“While it is necessary to have a statutory framework as a starting point, the nature of the problem is such that the legislation is likely to be necessarily complex, giving rise to multiple small value claims and many workers may be discouraged from pursuing each all the way to an employment tribunal,” the authors explain.