A zero-hours contract of employment effectively creates an ‘on call’ arrangement between employer and employee. It does not oblige the employer to provide work for the employee, or for the employee to accept the work offered, but the employee agrees to be available for work as and when required, so that no particular number of hours or times of work are specified.
Several pub chains use zero-hours contracts, including Spirit Pub Company and JD Wetherspoon, the latter of which confirmed to the PMA that 80% of its staff, or 24,000 people, work under such arrangements, although pub managers do “try to give staff the hours they want”.
Meanwhile, brewer and pub operator Greene King said it is “currently in the process of removing” the practice.
One pubco boss famously did away with zero-hours contracts in his own company after discovering that his daughter was sent home unpaid from her pub job because it was quiet. Keith Knowles, of Beds & Bars, said zero-hours contracts “make my blood boil”, adding: “If you’re sending somebody home, how are you going to persuade that person that having a career [in hospitality] is a worthwhile thing?”
And this is the point. If we are to encourage talented young people to join the pub industry for more than just a holiday job or a stopgap before their ‘real career’ begins, then we must make its jobs fair and attractive.
There is a real need for flexible employment in the pub trade, which has seasonal, weather and event-related effects on business, some of which can be hard to predict accurately. The British Hospitality Association, among others, argues that zero-hours contracts can provide some employers with the flexibility they need and some employees with the working hours that suit their lifestyle.
As is often the case with employment law, it is not the use of zero-hours contracts that is the problem here, but abuse of zero-hours contracts. If managers are deliberately staffing their pubs to cater for maximum potential business safe in the knowledge that if that business doesn’t materialise they can send staff home unpaid, that is morally wrong.
While overstaffing is not ideal, especially when margins are tight, it doesn’t take much thought to deploy a spare member of bar or kitchen staff in a business-building function on an otherwise dead afternoon. Well-targeted social-media work or other marketing activities — such as updating websites, email lists and posters, or distributing flyers — can pay dividends, and may help to ensure that the same time next week is not so quiet.
Otherwise there are always cleaning, minor repair, and lifting and shifting jobs to do. Every pub should have the following message displayed in the eyeline of staff: “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.”
If staff are being sent home because there’s not enough for them to do, it’s not zero-hours contracts at fault, but zero-imagination managers.