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Zero hours or zero benefit

Helena Woodward-Vukcevic, Employment Solicitor at law firm Hart Brown, comments on the proposed ministerial plans to impose sanctions on jobseekers refusing to accept zero hours roles

Helena Woodward-Vukcevic, Employment Solicitor at law firm Hart Brown, comments on the proposed ministerial plans to impose sanctions on jobseekers refusing to accept zero hours roles

It has been reported that a letter from conservative party Employment minister, Esther McVey, reveals plans to impose sanctions on jobseekers refusing to accept zero hours roles. Zero hours contracts are controversial because they do not actually require an employer to provide any work for an employee. Whereas the employee must agree to be available for work as and when required.

This provides flexibility to employers whereby they do not necessarily have to pay their staff during quiet periods whilst keeping them available on short notice for when they are needed.
The Department for Work and Pensions has said that "if a claimant turns down a particular vacancy (including zero hours contract jobs) a sanction may be applied, but we will look into the circumstances of the case and consider whether they had good reason" and clarified that "A job seeker would not be required to take a zero hours contract that tied them in exclusively to work for a single employer."

The use of zero hours contracts has increased considerably since the financial crisis in 2008 particularly in low-paid sectors creating insecurity amongst workers. No minimum number of hours or times of work are specified. The employee is expected to be on call and receives payment only for those hours worked. Under the contracts workers lose out on holiday, sick pay, redundancy and other benefits in addition to having no guaranteed income.

Whilst these arrangements may be ideal for some people such as students or retirees who want occasional earnings, seasonal work or are able to be flexible about when they work, others have the risk of unpredictable hours and earnings with no guaranteed shifts or income. This had led to a government review of zero-hours contracts with politicians calling for employers to offer at least minimum guaranteed hours. Business Secretary, Vince Cable, suggested that zero-hours contracts may soon be subject to legislation but ruled out a complete ban instead considering a change in the rules preventing restrictions on workers being tied to work exclusively for a single employer.

In conclusion, it is a positive that the use of these contracts is now being closely monitored by the government. It is vital that those claiming unemployment benefits are encouraged to get back into work as quickly as possible where work is available to them. However, the concern is that those workers do not lose out on fundamental employment rights in the long run.