Martin Williams: Amazon’s term-time contracts come with a new set of problems

Amazon flexibility The idea proposed by Amazon to offer contracts that revolve around term-time working is an interesting one. At first glance it can seem generous, allowing a degree of flexibility for workers who find school holidays a difficult time to balance work and childcare.

However, Amazon is not being totally altruistic. It needs to solve a recruitment problem and offering a solution that appears responsive to issues that many individuals face is no bad thing. Cynical commentators will want to look behind the motivation of Amazon, which has become a punchbag for those who are concerned about working conditions in the growing remote retail industry.

Putting aside such concerns for a moment, we need to look at the issue of term-time working as a concept outside of the education sector. The employer attracts a wider pool of recruits and individuals can get the chance to work when they might not otherwise feel they are able. With flexibility comes a new set of problems, as it does have its limits. Those limits will be most noticeable when issues arise during term-time when the work is concentrated. Children are not the most predictable of beings and there will be occasions where they need care and attention while school is in session.

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With the paid holiday time for the worker already pre-determined, this means they must request unpaid leave for any term-time absences. This is a logical consequence of the arrangement in play but will be a key concern for the employee. If it is possible for them to arrange childcare, rather than take time off, that care will most likely be at a cost greater than the earnings warehouse working can bring. The loss will still be present.

There is nothing wrong with Amazon, or any other employer, insisting that absences in term-time should be unpaid when the paid holiday provision is equivalent to, or greater than, the statutory minimum.

What will also be interesting is how the arrangements for term-time working will be framed. The Supreme Court case of Harpur Trust v Brazel has had all sorts of implications for those working irregular patterns within a term-time only context. The result can lead to a perception of improved entitlement to paid holiday, as a balancing exercise is carried out to fit the square peg of reality into the round of hole of legislation.

As irregular working can be a key element for those looking for flexibility, this is not something that can be easily ignored. Flexibility provides many a benefit but working out its limits in the context of a legal framework not necessarily designed for a flexible work environment can create many a headache.

Martin Williams is head of employment and a partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter