Monday, 9 September 2013

Zero Hour Contracts, A Cautionary Approach

This week the Trade Union Congress will call for the outlawing of zero hours contacts (http://www.tuc.org.uk/the_tuc/tuc-22485-f0.pdf pg12) and while, personally, I dislike the practice there has to be caution in either outlawing the practice or, indeed, modifying it.

It is estimated that around 300,000 social care workers are on zero hours contracts (http://www.socialcareworker.co/2013/08/02/300000-social-care-workers-on-zero-hours-contracts/), around a third of the total workforce.

Before we puts jobs at jeopardy or social care services at risk by outlawing zero hours contracts there first needs to be a comprehensive look at why the use of zero hours contracts has risen in social care and, obviously, an understanding of the impact to services if those contracts are outlawed.

Is there, for example, a link between the increased use of zero hour contracts and the increased use of ’15 minute’ social care services being commissioned?

A survey last year by the UKHCA found that
·         Short homecare visits being commissioned by councils to undertake intimate personal care, with risks to the dignity and safety of people who use services;
·         Continued downward-pressure on the prices paid for care, where lowest price has overtaken quality of service in commissioning decisions;
·         Contracting arrangements which have resulted in visit times and the hourly rates paid for care as the decisive factors in the viability of the sector.

If providers are fighting to compete on price then, from a business point of view, it means having staff on zero hours contracts makes sense if it helps reduce overall staffing costs. So the issue is not only about zero hour contracts but also about commissioning and funding in social care.

There also needs to be thought about the impact on services if zero hours contracts are outlawed or modified without any real thought of the implications.

Social care is, by its very nature, difficult to plan for. We cannot tell how many people will suddenly need social care services in the near future or, sadly, how many will no longer need care services. So there needs to be a degree of flexibility in social care staffing, particularly in home care where the greater use of zero hours contracts are found.

If zero hour contracts are removed without arrangements for dealing with this need for flexibility then care services could be affected. For example not enough staff would lead to people receiving care services only when people are available rather than when they need them or providers could have a surfeit of staff who would still need to be paid even when there was no work for them, putting pressure on the provider’s economic viability.


Within social care zero hour contracts are as much a symptom of the financial constraints as they are about employer exploitation. Yes let’s get rid of them but in a manner that ensures social care services are improved rather than put in jeopardy and a manner that improves the lives of social care workers rather than puts jobs at risk.