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Zero-hour contract is a form of employment that allows the employer not to guarantee any minimal working hours and has been a subject of many discussions and academic research alike. There are different kinds of work names although they all have the same characteristics as zero-hours contracts. For instance, Adams & Prassl’s (2018) definition showed the diversity of zero-hours contracts term. They defined it as a work arrangement in which the worker has a personal relationship with the employing entity and there are no fixed guaranteed hours of paid work. Some of such arrangements are called on-call, on-demand and intermittent. Nonetheless, based on the official consultation document published by the government in 2013, zero-hour contract was stated to be an employment contract where the employer does not guarantee any work for the employee, and the employee is not obliged to accept any offered work (CONSULTATION: Zero hours employment contracts, 2013). The main aim this essay is to explore how people experience zero hour contracts in the United Kingdom (UK). The paper will be divided in two sections. The first section will review existing literature on the impact of zero hour contracts on employee health and well-being, with a specific focus on stress and depression. The second section will take a case study approach, where the issue of zero hour contract will be evaluated from the perspective of two companies in the UK, i.e. Sports Direct and Buckingham Palace.


Zero-Hours Contracts, Health and Well-Being

Adams & Prassl (2018) narrate that after the Second World War, organizations gained an interest in stable relationships with their employees, whereby they made informal or formal contracts with employees rather than relying on market forces to match them with workers. This arrangement assured them earnings security (i.e. this kind of security is also termed as ‘job for life’), and it was highly embraced, considering the fact that people were more financially vulnerable back then (Beatson, 2015). Consequently, workers were more encouraged to stay in their positions, while companies reaped the benefits of maximizing profits by attracting and retaining employees.

However, recently, zero hours contracts have contributed to an erosion of the concept of ‘a job for life’, thereby leaving works wrapped in uncertainties regarding their working hours and earnings (Beatson, 2015). Nonetheless, Collins et al (2012) say that whereas employees with zero-hour contracts have the same statutory employee rights with other employees, the uncertain definitions of workers and employees have made it difficult to discern the rights that are guaranteed. In this regard Deakin & Morris (2012) argue that while some workers may not be concerned about the uncertainties, other workers who pay rent, mortgages and have dependents are less likely to embrace zero hour contracts. It is this uncertainty that leads to the issue of health and well-being of employees within the context of zero hour contracts. Collins et al (2012) argue that zero hour contracts have contributed to employees’ experience of greater levels of low-grade stress compared to traditional employment contracts. Ideally, as illustrated below, existing qualitative research have

revealed that low-grade stress associated with zero hour contracts is mediated by many factors including anxiety and financial insecurity. A good example of such study is that of Bender & Theodossiou (2017) who sought to evaluate the concept of flexicurity and the health impacts of flexible employment arrangements such as zero hour contracts, on employee health and well-being. From an analytical perspective, the concept of flexicurity emerged in 2007 after the European Commission established a policy termed ‘flexicurity’ whereby countries were expected to encourage flexible employment contracts through policy initiatives (Beatson, 2015). According to Adams & Prassl (2018), the policy stated that while limiting job security, countries were expected to craft policies that could enable easier access to jobs and enhance employment, amidst the developing challenges of globalization and changes in competition.

The qualitative study by Bender & Theodossiou (2017) included 2,300 participants who had worked in British firms for the past 17 years and sought to find out their experience with zero hour contracts and whether these contracts had any effect on their health. The study measured health in various ways including the respondents subjective perception and attitude about overall well-being and any self-reported health issues. The results by Bender & Theodossiou (2017) were worrying and consistent with those of other studies. After using all the measures of health and well-being, all the participants who had worked on zero hour contracts for at least 50% of their time experienced a deterioration of their overall health and well-being. To have an in-depth analysis of the relationship between zero hour contracts and poor health and well-being, the researchers compared the long-term effects of zero-hour contracts to other variables such as the effects of smoking. Unfortunately, this analysis

showed that workers who spent 50% of their time on zero hour contracts generally experienced half as poor health and well-being outcomes as those experienced by smokers. Bender & Theodossiou (2017), the stress, poor health and well-being as a result of zero hour contracts can be explained by different factors. For example, Adams & Prassl (2018) explained that zero hour contracts create an environment whereby lower supervisors are unaccountable and dictate workers hours and the resultant income, so much so that the employee is exposed to abuse and poor management by their supervisors. Similar arguments are presented in a study by Burchell (n.d) which involved shop-floor observations and interviews with workers in a supermarket. The study suggested that the uncertainty of incomes and the general unpredictability associated with zero hour contracts added more costs to employees when scheduling for access to training or when arranging for childcare. While analyzing the study results, Burchell (n.d) argues that these additional costs led to widespread anxiety, depression, and stress among workers as a result of the social and financial uncertainty caused by zero-hour contracts. The findings of these studies tend to suggest that workers with zero hour contracts in the UK experience social and financial uncertainty which contributes to stress, anxiety, and depression – ultimately leading to poor health and well-being.

Zero Hours contract at Sports Direct and Buckingham Palace

The phenomenon of zero-hour contracts has largely been experienced in the case of Buckingham Palace and Sports Direct. The two organizations have hit news headlines for implementing zero hour contracts, a work arrangement considered one of the most controversial in the UK (Beatson, 2015). A deeper evaluation of zero-hour contract between Buckingham Palace and Sports Direct does not reveal any significant differences in regards their workers experience. For instance, according to reports by Inman et al (2013), employees at the Buckingham Palace are required to sign a contract that gives them no work guarantee hence the employees end up with no promise of work. Similar contracts have been signed by more than 3,000 employees at Sports Direct who have no certainty over how much income they are likely to make from their jobs (Grut-Williams, 2016). A stunning similarity between the zero-hour contracts at the Buckingham Palace and at Sports Direct is that employees employed under this arrangement, in the two companies, are effectively rendered unable to get a second job regardless of how uncertain they are with their current jobs. For instance, Inman et al (2013) reveal an excerpt from the employment contract at the Palace stating that:

"You are employed to work exclusively for Royal Collection Enterprises Limited [a Palace subsidiary] and if you wish to seek secondary employment you must first obtain the written consent of your Head of Department." (Inman et al 2013:n.p) A keen evaluation of this excerpt reveals that regardless of being flexible, employees at the Buckingham Palace cannot freely use their flexibility to find other jobs to supplement what they are currently earning at the Buckingham Palace. Besides, Grut-Williams (2016) reveals that whereas zero-hours contracts are meant to allow employees achieve flexibility in their work life, Sports Direct does not seem to guarantee their employees the flexibility due to the restrictive nature of their zero hour contracts. This is exemplified in an excerpt of the contract which states that:


"Refusal to accept a suitable assignment without good cause will result in you being deemed not available for work and may constitute gross misconduct. This may result in the termination of employment without notice and without payment in lieu of notice." (Grut-Williams 2016: n.p). From this excerpt, it could be argued that whereas zero-hour contracts are meant to allow employee flexibility, employees at Sports Direct are experiencing restrictions as a characteristic of the zero-hour contract they have signed with their employer. In conclusion, this literature review has revealed various negative experiences with zero hour contracts among UK workers employed by the two companies (i.e. Buckingham Palace and Sports Direct) in our case study. It has revealed that zero-hour contracts are associated with various public health repercussions to the working British citizens. It is, therefore, necessary for the government to revisit the various laws that govern this kind of contracts to negate the hefty negative experiences that accompany them.

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  • Adams, A., & Prassl, J. (2018). Zero-hours work in the United Kingdom (No. 994983192702676). International Labour Organization.
  • Beatson, M. (2015). Zero-hours and short-hours contracts in the UK: employer and employee perspectives [Ebook]. CIPD. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299881243_Zero-hours_and_short-hours_contracts_in_the_UK_employer_and_employee_perspectives [Accessed on 30 Dec 2018]
  • Burchell B. (n.d) Flexible scheduling, zero-hours contract and the misery of temporal job insecurity, London: Routledge.
  • Bender K. & Theodossiou I. (2017) The Unintended Consequences of Flexicurity: The Health Consequences of Flexible Employment, Population Health. P .184-194.
  • Collins, H., Ewing, K. D., & McColgan, A. (2012). Labour law. Cambridge University Press. Deakin, S., & Morris, G. S. (2012). Labour Law (Six Edition).167 Sanders, A. (2017). Fairness in the Contract of Employment. Industrial Law Journal, 46(4), 508-542.
  • Inman P., Taylor M., & Neville S. (2013) Buckingham Palace uses zero-hours contracts for summer staff, The Guardian, 30 Jul 2013. Williams-Grut O. (2016) Here is the terrible contract staff at Sports Direct's 'Victorian workhouse' had to sign up to, Business Insider, 22 Jul 2016.

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