Zero-hours contracts: Why they're both good and bad for students

What the contracts mean for students - and why they shouldn't necessarily be turned down

Diarmuid Russell
Thursday 01 October 2015 16:23

Following the election of the UK’s new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, zero-hours contracts are likely to move higher up the media agenda than ever before. This has been a significant part of Mr Corbyn’s campaign manifesto and, it’s safe to say, he is strongly opposed to them.

These contracts – where employers can hire staff with no guarantee of work – have been hitting the headlines for some time with a focus on how they impact the UK’s unemployed. However, there is another group within society that is probably the easiest targets for such contracts – students.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in 2014, 37 per cent of those in the UK on zero-hours contracts were aged between 16 and 24, many of whom will undoubtedly be young people. So, are they good or bad for students?

Students have always taken on casual work; when I was a student, I worked in bars and restaurants with no contractual guarantee of work. I didn’t realise it at the time, but effectively I was in what would now be termed a zero-hours contract.

For me, it turned out to be a great experience. I got valuable work experience and cash, and was treated well by my most of my employers. Now, with the increased focus on zero-hours contracts, recent research from jobs site Glassdoor suggests mixed views on the value of these contracts.

The Glassdoor study – which polled 1,000 students – gauged awareness, interest, and the likelihood of accepting this type of contract. The survey also asked why they would accept or decline zero-hours contracts, and how practical they are as an employment option.

The results were quite surprising: 27 per cent had been offered a zero-hours contract in the past, and over a third reported they actually turned down the offer of potential employment. The main reason cited for rejection (44 per cent) was the lack of trust towards employers who offered the contracts. An important reminder to employers: if you don’t earn trust with job seekers, it will impact your recruiting efforts and potentially your employees’ attitudes toward the company, as well as their overall on-the-job performance.

A third of students felt the whole concept of zero-hours is exploitative and more than one in four thought they should be abolished. These findings are intriguing, given these contracts allow students to move in and out of the job throughout the year, and potentially pick up hours which fit around studies and holidays – much as my bar and restaurant work did back when I was studying.

For many, turning a job offer down was not an option, regardless of the type of contract. Almost two thirds of those offered one of these contracts accepted it – but not for positive reasons. For many, money was the key driver so it’s no surprise almost a quarter accepted the job because they simply needed the cash. Work experience was also an important factor for students to take into account when considering an offer (39 per cent).

So, should students turn down zero hours contracts?

The short answer is not necessarily. The issue here is not whether students should or shouldn’t accept them but, instead, it’s about whether we are doing enough to help students understand the benefits and risks involved before accepting them: almost a quarter of students admitted they did not know what one of these contracts was, leaving this group potentially vulnerable.

Among the benefits of zero-hours contracts, students would be entitled to statutory annual leave. They would also receive at least the national minimum wage which is currently £5.13 for those aged 18 to 20, and £6.50 for those aged 21 and over. Some employers offering students casual work may not adhere to the minimum wage requirement, particularly if it’s a cash agreement. In addition, students would be able to refuse work when it is offered, unlike employees on fixed contracts.

If you’re a student working on a zero-hours contract, you shouldn’t feel obliged or pressured to take a shift. Equally, you should not be penalised if you can’t work as often as the employer would like. Zero-hours state that it is a casual contract – this must cut both ways for the employer and employee.

So, if you get offered such contract, make sure you know the general attitude of that employer towards staff and how zero-hours works for other employees. Are people on them valued or just viewed as an ‘extra pair of hands’? What is the attitude of senior management towards staff, and would you get the same benefits as permanent staff?

If you are considering going down this route, make sure you read company reviews on Glassdoor to find out what employees at specific companies have to say about their company’s culture, work environment, as well as compensation packages.

Diarmuid Russell is senior vice president and general manager international at Glassdoor

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