Forget Zero-Hours, Firms Have Found Another Way To Keep Staff On Tenterhooks

Firms keen to distance themselves from controversial zero-hours contracts are tying staff to deals which carry many of the same problems and potential abuses, an investigation has found.

Documents seen by HuffPost suggest companies are able to exploit loopholes in the law to sidestep a 2015 ban on exclusivity clauses that stop staff working for other firms.

And they show how so-called ‘short hours’ contracts enable employers to demand staff to be at their “beck and call” – and potentially ask them to travel hundreds of miles for shifts.

Emiliano Mellino/IWGB
Dozens of security staff at the University of London went on strike over the contracts this week

The contracts have sparked condemnation from unions, with outsourced security staff at the University of London (UoL) going on strike over their use this week.

One such contract, used by security outsourcing firm Cordant Group at UoL and seen by HuffPost, tells employees:

  • They will have a minimum of 336 hours of work a year;
  • They must always be available to work at short notice;
  • They must be available to work at any location in the UK with ‘reasonable notice’;
  • And that hours can be allocated randomly throughout the year meaning there may be ‘periods when no work is allocated’.

Trade unions, a policy expert and an employment lawyer all told HuffPost such contracts don’t differ materially from zero-hours deals but that, crucially, they circumvent current government rules and would dodge any future law banning them entirely.

Cordant declined to comment on the findings. The University of London said it doesn’t comment on a supplier’s employment arrangements.

One Cordant employee, Ismail*, told HuffPost he was informed by bosses that the company’s contract provided “unlimited” hours – and thus a limitless earning potential.

Excerpts pertaining to working hours and place of work in the Cordant contract seen by HuffPost

Yet within months of signing, Ismail discovered a very different side to his working arrangements.

“There was a change suddenly,” Ismail said. “One month I had been getting fifty hours a week, then the next, almost nothing.

“Now I’m working two three-and-a-half hour shifts a week.”

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Cordant Group provides security for the University of London 

There was constant change, Ismail said, including the location of shifts.

“I started out in a warehouse and ended up at the university,” Ismail said. “They sometimes changed where I worked suddenly too, I didn’t know where the next [shift] would be.”

The sudden withdrawal of hours has had a big effect on Ismail’s ability to provide for his wife and children in Britain, and for relatives living through civil war in Yemen.

“I can’t provide for them now, that’s the worst thing,” he said.

I can’t provide for them now, that’s the worst thing
Ismail, Cordant security worker

Yet a review of Ismail’s Cordant employment contract shows how his predicament is entirely legal – set out starkly in black and white.

HuffPost passed parts of the contract relating to working hours and location to an employment solicitor, who described its wording as having little difference to a zero-hours deal.

“There appears to be few differences, based on the excerpt of the contract we have seen, for employees between a flexible contract like this and a zero-hours contract,” said Katie Mahoney of employment specialists Doyle Clayton.

Emiliano Mellino/IWGB
Workers protested the use of ‘short hours’ contracts by Cordant this week

While employees on the contracts will have more statutory rights as a result of their signing a contract with minimum hours, Mahoney said the document does not make clear if working elsewhere is allowed.

“It is not clear whether this contract expressly prohibits this,” she said. “But the requirement that the employee must be available to work when requested suggests that this is the reality and they must work exclusively for the employer, despite not being guaranteed anything more than 336 hours of work a year.”

“It appears that by using a ‘flexible’ contract, the employer might be trying to get round the ban on exclusivity clauses,” she added.

Emiliano Mellino/IWGB
Protestors attended the University of London’s Senate House this week

The contract states: ‘You agree you are available to work when requested unless otherwise agreed in advance with us.’

The contract also states that disciplinary action would be taken if employees declined work with less than four hours notice. Cordant employees said turning down work often led to fewer hours in future.

“They won’t tell you to your face that they are giving you fewer hours if you turn down work, but it happens all the time,” Abdul Bakhsh, another Cordant security officer who also represents workers, said.

‘You agree you are available to work when requested unless otherwise agreed in advance with us’
Cordant Services contract seen by HuffPost

Ismail and Abdul are among the Cordant workers who went on strike at UoL this week over the use of the contracts and low pay.

Henry Chango Lopez, President of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which represents some Cordant workers at UoL, said “uncertainty” haunted staff on the contracts.

“This is not like a normal contract where you have a set number of hours and that is what you work,” Lopez told HuffPost. “Because they don’t have many hours, the company can call at any time and say to staff that they are working at any time.

“Those on these contracts are moved from one place to another and it is uncertain. The whole thing is just so uncertain.”

I think this is the new zero-hours contract. It is so similar
Henry Chango Lopez, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain

“It is only in the company’s favour. They assume that people can work anytime and any place but that is not always the case,” he said. “I think this is the new zero-hours contract. It is so similar.”

However, the Resolution Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank on living standards, told HuffPost that ‘short or small hours’ contracts provide benefits to employees they would not receive if they were self-employed. 

“Those who are employees might have less control over the work they do, they also have more benefits,” Resolution’s Dan Tomlinson said. “They will get sick pay and they will get holiday leave and the big difference is that they have the right to the national living wage.”

Yet the Foundation said while the latest data showed the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts is at an all-time high, growth was slowing. 

Negative press coverage of the deals could lie behind the slow down, Tomlinson said. And for those firms keen to distance themselves from bad publicity, ‘short or small hours’ contracts are one of their options. 

Bad press: Zero-hours deals grew after public outrage three years ago

“If businesses are looking for new ways to have flexibility within their workforce that aren’t zero-hours contracts one of the options they might choose is a [short or] small hours contract,” Tomlinson said.

And that’s a view echoed by the Trades Union Congress.

“There’s been a lot of negativity publicity around the use of zero-hours contracts and a lot of employers do not want to be labelled as a zero-hours employer,” the TUC’s Hannah Reed told HuffPost. 

“The reputational risk of using a zero-hours contract is increasing. Some employers think they can remove the risk by moving to a short hours contracts.”

The TUC added that people working on ‘short hours’ contracts experience similar issues to those on zero-hours deals.

“Individuals on short hours contracts often face many of the same problems and abuses as those on zero-hours contracts,” Reed added. “They are expected to be at the beck and call of an employer and they have no certainty over whether they can meet their household bills.”

The TUC is calling for those working regular hours in practice to be guaranteed those hours in a written contract and for those who are expected to be flexible, to be entitled to premium pay.

Last month, Santander was found to be using ‘short hours’ contracts which guaranteed staff just 12 hours work each year. The bank was criticised for a “new low” by an MP.

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Santander was found to use ‘short hours’ contracts guaranteeing just 12 hours work a year

Shopworkers union Usdaw pointed out that ‘short hours’ contracts were nothing new for its members – but contracts it has seen in the past tend to include minimum hours on a weekly, rather than annual basis.

Just this week, food chain McDonald’s replaced all of its zero-hours contracts with ‘short hours’ deals providing four to 16 hours, or full-time employment, after staff told bosses they couldn’t access loans or mortgages without guaranteed work.

Zero-hours deals were made controversial in their use by firms such as Sports Direct, which was described as “Dickensian” in its employment practices before it launched a full review, eventually ditching the deals and offering casual staff guaranteed hours. 

PA Wire/PA Images
Zero-hours contracts were made controversial in their use by firms such as Sports Direct

And a government review into zero-hours contracts in 2014 paved the way for a ban on exclusivity clauses which prevented staff from working elsewhere – but it stopped short of ending the loophole of ‘short hours’ contracts. 

Cordant Group declined to comment.

The University of London said “The University values the work of Cordant’s security staff who are a professional, dedicated and diligent group of individuals. 

“We’ve always been impressed by their calm and measured responses to sometimes very difficult situations.

“Security staff are not employees of the University but of one of our suppliers, Cordant Services.

“We do not intend to comment on the employment arrangements of another organisation except to say that we understand that Cordant have already responded to the issues that have been raised by their staff.” 

*Ismail is a pseudonym.

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