Charles Cotton: Should zero-hour contracts include a minimum benefits provision?

With a zero-hour contract, certain minimum employee benefits can already apply. For instance, some contracts are undoubtedly employment contracts and will attract the full protection of employment regulation, including holidays. 

But in other cases, those on zero-hour contracts will only be casual workers, who have some statutory protections but not the full range. They will also be eligible for automatic pensions enrolment. Employers will have to look at the contract each time, and even then an employment tribunal might not agree.

So the question is whether zero-hour contracts should go beyond what is required by law. This will depend on what the organisation is trying to achieve by using such arrangements and whether employees feel disadvantaged.

Many employers surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in its Quarterly Employee Outlook Survey (published in August) said they employ a few zero-hours contract workers to deal with temporary increases in demand. For instance, during an election, a council may employ additional workers on zero-hours contracts to count postal votes and ballot papers.

From an employee perspective, this type of arrangement can be good for people because they are able to supplement their income and work only when it suits them. In such instances, these individuals may not require or value additional employee benefits.

By contrast, our research found that a small percentage of organisations employ the majority of their workers on such contracts. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing if such staff are treated in the same way as those that are permanently employed; for instance, both sets of workers have the same training and development opportunities. 

The problem is in a minority of cases, where such workers are being treated unfairly and government intervention may be required to ensure they are not being exploited. However, the assumption that zero-hours contracts are, by their nature, bad is incorrect. It depends on how they are used by both the employer and those employees on zero-hours contracts.

Charles Cotton is reward adviser at the CIPD