Zero hours contracts – is third sector the guiltiest party?

I’ve been following the zero-hours debate over recent days and thinking it’s about time this was focused on.

We all know someone — and often a younger person — employed on zero-hours, and typically they’ll be in retail or some other part of the service sector.

But  new research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) suggests that the third  sector is twice as likely to use zero-hours contracts as the private sector.

34% of third sector employers were found to use such contracts compared with 24% of the public sector and 17% of private sector employers.

If this  survey really is showing the current picture then how can we account for the third sector’s employment practices being worse than those of the private sector?

And more to the point, what can we do about it?

The story is covered fully here in Third Sector Online.


Jan Golding at Roots HR tried to post the following comment but for some reason it was rejected by the software — so I will add it here because it contributes significantly to the debate and offers a very different view:

I’m not sure where the idea came from that zero hours contracts are about poor employment practice. Zero hours contracts are a way for organisations to offer work opportunities, usually at the same rate as part or full time comparators, in situations where demand for the service is ad hoc and varying. A zero hours contract, if used as nature intended, is a product of fluctuating customer demand, not a symptom of a a poor employer. Employees on zero hours contracts will effectively become permanent part time employees if they work a continuous, regular number of hours and will be entitled to benefits on the same level as other part time employees. These contracts are a bit of a necessary evil for employers – there to help them address fickle customer demand, but good employees on these contracts who want permanent work will use them as a stepping stone to a permanent role elsewhere, taking their training and experience with them.

I am not sure who the users of zero hours contracts in the voluntary sector are because at Roots HR, we rarely, if ever, see one. We recommend casual or sessional agreements for employers who can offer work but on an irregular basis.

Generally I hold the view that the ability for an organisation to offer paid work on any type of contract is a positive thing for them and for our economy. It is a shame if people who really want permanent work can only find work on a zero hours contract but that might be the best the employer can do – it might simply meet their business need. And it is possible that some people who gain permanent employment will do so because of work experience gained on zero hours contracts.

I have a professional disregard for these contracts for a different reason and that is because they are often badly written and unenforceable. I was interested to note that the CIPD survey found that only 14% of zero hours employees were unhappy with the proposition. These contracts do not replace permanent and fixed term contracts of employment but written well and used appropriately,they have a valuable contribution to offer to the UK workforce, to the economy and to our sector.

Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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