You get a phone call from your boss. He wants you to work over the weekend – which is great because you could do with the extra money – but it means you’ll miss your daughter’s birthday party. But if you don’t do it, will your boss stop calling in future? Will the work dry up entirely?
Precarious working contracts (including so-called “zero-hour” contracts in the UK) are common across the EU. For example, under the rules of a zero-hour contract the employer has no obligation to provide work for the employee, who is expected to be available whenever needed (though they are paid only for the hours actually worked).
Supporters say this sort of flexible working arrangement is perfect for people who want some extra income, including students and retired people. Critics, however, say zero-hour contracts are becoming common for all sorts of workers, and they give too much power to employers, putting people with families and mortgages to pay in a precarious position.
With unemployment rates perilously high across the European Union, should we be trying to create jobs at any cost? Or should the focus be on ensuring quality jobs with decent security?
We had a comment from Paul, weighing in on this issue:
Zero hour contracts have always been around. It’s just the latest buzz word for casual work, and some people actually prefer not having a contract and just working when needed but they just don’t make good headlines.
We spoke to Anneliese Dodds, a British Labour MEP who has pledged that her priorities in the European Parliament will be to “protect and extend workers’ rights across Europe, including measures against zero-hour contracts“. How would she respond to Paul’s argument?
Paul is right, zero hours contracts have been around for a long time. What has changed though is their prevalence, especially in Britain. The UK’s Office for National Statistics recently found that about 1.4 million jobs offered in the UK are on zero hours contracts, and that marks a definitive increase in their use.
Some people do like the flexibility provided by zero hours contracts, but the evidence suggests that for many, all the flexibility is in the hands of the employer and not the employee. With these contracts having become the norm in some sectors, we have to shift to a situation where people can legitimately expect some degree of security at work, so they are not unaware from one day or week to the next how much money they will have coming in.
Not everybody agrees that this shift is necessary, however. We also spoke to Sony Kapoor, Managing Director of the economic policy and development think-tank Re-Define and one of the 40 Under 40 European Young Leaders. He argued that, with jobless rates so high in Europe, we just don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to quality of employment. The priority should be on getting people into work.
He also argued that many countries have such rigid labour markets that there are already lots of people working “outside” the system with poor worker protection. Kapoor thinks the focus should be on increasing labour market flexibility so everybody can benefit, not just insiders protected by labour unions.
Of course, different economies in Europe have different challenges. In the United Kingdom, the unemployment rate has dropped to 6% – the lowest it has been since 2008. It might be appropriate for the UK to get tough on precarious contracts (indeed, whilst not going as far as the opposition Labour Party – which wants to ban them completely – the governing coalition says it will clamp down on abuses of zero-hour contracts) whilst other EU economies may still need greater flexibility.
Should there be a Europe-wide ban on precarious working contracts? Or, with unemployment still sky-high across Europe, is greater labour market flexibility still needed? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions!