The recent experiences of the Universities of Edinburgh and Manchester demonstrate that it is a lack of employee bargaining strength and not a lack of regulation that has led to a growth in the use of zero hours arrangements.
As the political debate around zero hours contracts rumbles on and the government consultation on new regulations draws to a close, the news that Edinburgh University has agreed with the union to abandon such arrangements for teaching staff is being followed by Manchester University agreeing to stop arrangements for catering staff. Both situations show why BIS’ consultation on new regulation might be aiming at the wrong target.
There is nothing inherently evil about zero hours arrangements. For certain individuals they provide a good way to combine childcare commitments with a flexible working pattern. The benefits for employers are manifold; matching variable need for labour to variable employment costs being the most obvious. It’s the capacity for abuse driven by the weak labour market in the UK which primarily causes the issues with zero hours contracts not any inherent failing in UK employment laws and the scenarios in Edinburgh and Manchester demonstrate this point.
Both higher education institutions introduced and then expanded the use of zero hours contracts from 2008 onwards. Exactly the point that the labour market took a turn for the worse. Edinburgh was found to have the highest level of zero hours contracts of any UK higher education institution. This was not, despite what some may have implied, because those in HR at the institution were inherently evil. Instead, it was because, put simply, they could. The UCU trade union in representing its members and combined with a strengthening labour market was able to rebalance the employment relationship to the favour of the employees. It obtained the concession from Edinburgh University that it would cease using zero hours arrangements as a consequence.
The deal announced on Monday between Manchester university and Unison shows exactly the same pattern. A weak labour market and lack of a bargaining position on behalf of the employees meant the use of zero hours arrangements grew, not due to any political decision to use the arrangements. Employees with a stronger bargaining position have lead to the use of zero hours arrangements being reduced.
The issue is that the current government consultation on zero hours contracts does not appear to acknowledge this pattern and merely seeks to lay the groundwork for changes to employment law. As the scenarios at Edinburgh, Manchester and the experience of many higher paid professionals attest to, it’s not the lack of employment laws that causes the problem, but lack of bargaining position and strength in the labour market. We question, therefore, whether the current BIS consultation in exploring new employment laws is looking for a solution in the wrong place.