Could zero be a hero?

Devil on your shoulder: Barry Whelan asks whether the use of zero hour contracts is unfairly demonised by the media

While we’ve all heard plenty about the negatives surrounding the use of zero hour contracts, here Barry Whelan of Excel Recruitment, gives his verdict on why ‘zero hour’ and ‘if and when contracts’ are necessary in a modern economy



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17 December 2015

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There has been lots of talk recently in the media around the use of ‘zero hour’ and ‘if and when’ contracts of employment in the Irish economy. The majority of this talk being very negative and directed towards the retail, hospitality and healthcare sectors. The typical media line clearly demonises the use of these contracts without ever examining the importance of flexible employment.

I would argue that flexible employment, whilst not for everyone, does suit plenty of employees and companies and that flexible employment is not taken at gunpoint by anyone in this country. It is an option to employees that may suit their and their employer’s needs.

Minister of State for Business and Employment, Ged Nash, is considering introducing legislation that would ban employers from offering less than three hours of continuous work to employees under new labour market reforms.

Minister Nash also commissioned the University of Limerick to carry out a study to examine the extent of zero hour contracts in Irish society and their effect on employees. Whilst the study found that zero hour contracts were not prolific, they did find that ‘if and when’ contracts of employment were. This coupled with the recent industrial action in Dunnes Stores has led to a consistent negative media comment towards employment in the retail industry.

Is this negativity deserved?

Firstly there seems to be some confusion between the two, probably because the names given to these types of contracts can be misleading.

Zero hour contracts actually don’t give an employee zero hours. What they offer is a minimum amount of hours that an employee will work in a week. The employee must be paid for a minimum of 25% of these hours if the hours are not worked. At the same time, the employee must make themselves available to work their contract hours.

Dunnes has used contracts that stipulate minimum and maximum hours since the 1990s. I was employed on one as a member of staff myself during my own college years and employed staff on these contracts when I worked in management with Dunnes.

As a student working in Dunnes, this worked for me. The beauty of this contract was that in the summer, I increased my hours, by making myself available and at peaks like Christmas, I could work through the holidays. On the other hand, during term time, I was available for less hours as lectures and coursework filled my week, but still left time to work a few hours in the evening and on weekends, which my contract allowed.

Retail flexibility

Everyone working in retail knows that some weeks are busier than others. When sales are up there are more hours available than when sales are down. These contracts give retail businesses flexibility.

An ‘if and when’ contract of employment is a more casual arrangement. The employer is not obliged to provide any hours and the employee is not obliged to work any. These contracts work really well when employing temporary staff for temporary work.

Our product offer in Excel consists of permanent placements and temporary staff and our business enjoys a good mix of both. We employ our temporary staff on these contracts and in general have around 1,000 people working in this way across the sector.

We employ temporary staff for three reasons for our clients:

  • Holiday cover
  • Absence cover
  • Increased trade events

In retail, hospitality and particularly healthcare, there are certain positions that are business-critical. If my supermarket butcher is on holidays, I still need a qualified butcher for my meat department. If my retail pharmacist is absent, I still need a pharmacist in my pharmacy. If my business is going to go through a large increase in sales either through seasonality or some commercial event, I will need extra staff to man my store.

Fulfilling an important gap

What if a care giver in a hospice is out sick or needs holiday cover? There is no other solution but to have a temporary staff member in place. We need a flexible workforce to cover these eventualities that come up every single week.

In fact Ged Nash’s study discovered that “that 10% of the workforce in the community care sector – dealing with the provision of homecare for older people and services for those with an intellectual disability were on ‘if and when’ contracts”.

Perhaps 10% is the rate of absenteeism in that highly stressful and important sector. I wouldn’t be surprised if 10% of the workforce in that area was flexible for that reason alone.

I would like to hear more positivity towards our industry from the media about the value of these contracts, from journalists, who no doubt like me, packed shelves in Dunnes Stores whilst in college on a zero hours contract.







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