"What are zero hours contracts?" asked someone at the Northampton Borough Council Diverse Communities Forum.
Despite the media storm over the past couple of days, it still seem that people don't necessarily notice how badly exploited those desperate for work can get.
Where I work zero hours contracts have been an issue to giving advice on discrimination for the past four years or so. In the past if a company offered work but said that they couldn't commit to how many hours they could give, applicants would perhaps take the role but look for something a lot better pretty quick. With little availability of fixed hours for people with little skills or little experience in particular in retail, service and logistics zero hours contracts are the only option for many. For those on benefits it presents a descent into revising and re-revising claims that can take weeks to process leaving a trail of debts and payday loans along the way. It offers no security and presents a situation where employees are hanging on a string.
My daughter worked for Sport Direct on a zero hours contract last year. Assigned a 6am to 10am shift, she was often asked to stay until 4pm or 6pm at in the evening. People feel obliged to say yes because they fear the work drying up. This will always place people with caring responsibilities or those disabled people who need more flexible working environments for them at a disadvantage.
Most crucially, zero hours contracts can hide a multitude of poor employer behaviour. A few weeks ago Magda and her husband Chris came into the office. Magda worked for a company that provided cleaner for local hotels. When Magda applied for and got her job, both she and Chris were pleased that it wasn't agency work and that it came with a written contract. Magda had a history of ill health and so had asked for lighter duties as reasonable adjustment which her manager agreed to. Every week Magda would get a call advising her of the shifts that she should undertake. Although lighter duties were given in the first few weeks, after a while Magda found herself being asked to do more and more heavy work, until one day she fell ill after her shift. She was taken to hospital where she was told that she had suffered a miscarriage. Although, she didn't know that she was pregnant this came as a big emotional blow to Magda and Chris. Chris called her manager and told him what had happened and re-stated his wife's need for light duties. It was agreed that Madga should be assigned to a different hotel where this was possible. She was working with a new team and after a few days another member of staff came into a room where she was cleaning and said that the rest of the team had noticed that she was only being given light duties and felt that she was being treated this way because she was Ukrainian. The woman that said this to Magda was White British and she said that the other team members would be setting up a campaign to get her out. Magda went into another room and called her manager who told her not to worry and that he would sort it out. Magda left her shift that day upset about what had happened. Then suddenly, she no longer received calls advising her of the hours to work. When Magda asked her manager about this he just advised that there was no more work for her. Magda and Chris came to Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council for advice and brought in the Magda's contract. They read thorough the contract and said, that surely something could be done as it didn't state that it was a zero hours contract. However since it didn't state any hour in the contract there was not obligation for her employer to give her hours given that she was not given the same consistent number of hours over a period of time.
It's clear in this situation and in many others that we have seen that zero hours contracts is a key safeguard to employer who either wish to discriminate or support others who discriminate as happened with Magda.
Magda and Chris's names have been changed to protect their confidentiality.