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Zero hours view

Despite the controversy that surrounds them, zero hours contracts continue to be widely used in the security industry. Barry Dawson, Managing Director – Security, at the security and site services contractor Wilson James, pictured, says there needs to be a concerted move away from this type of employment practice if the industry is serious about becoming more professional and raising its standards.

Zero hours contracts allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work – colleagues who work as and when they are needed and only get paid for the hours they complete. It has been alleged that some employers are using zero hours contracts to create an intolerable situation for their workers. Reports of people being put ‘on call’ 24-7, with the threat that their contract will be terminated if they don’t turn up at short notice, are widespread.

Number crunching

Exactly how many people are on zero hours contracts is a subject of some conjecture. However, figures from Statista suggest that 917,000 UK workers – around 2.8 per cent of the workforce – are employed on these terms. There has been a significant expansion in zero hours contracts since 2000, with the most considerable annual increase occurring between 2012 and 2013, with a peak of three per cent occurring in 2020, when the number of people affected was estimated to be 978,000. Admittedly, zero hour contracts form a very small part of the UK labour market, but they have come to increasing public prominence in recent years – usually for all the wrong reasons. Whilst some workers and employers appreciate the flexibility of zero hour contracts, others point to their negative effect on low income households and their potential for exploitation. What’s especially disturbing about this is that the people most affected often put up with being treated this way in the hope that they will be offered a full time contract – something that rarely happens. What’s more, if they refuse to accept these conditions and leave, they are unlikely to receive unemployment benefits.

Point of order

Before I go any further, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Wilson James currently employs some people on zero hours contracts, mostly for events – and only when the worker specifically requests that kind of contract – but it is something that we are quickly trying to move away from. Put simply, zero hours contracts do not encourage a heightened sense of loyalty between employer and worker and they foster a low pay culture. Whilst zero hours contracts do attract holiday and sick pay, this is statutory, based on the actual hours worked – so the terms are basic [statutory] and not enhanced in any way. This can put people in a vulnerable position that could lead to mental and physical health implications. Furthermore, most of the general public seems to think the same way. According to a sample of the adult population surveyed in 2021 by YouGov, 64 per cent thought ‘zero hours contracts are normally a bad thing – they don’t provide any security and allow employers to exploit their workers’ and 57 per cent thought they should be abolished, with just 21 per cent disagreeing.

For and against

Although I have my own strong opinion, I realised that the argument is nuanced. Some people in this industry ague that zero hours contracts provide a flexible way to offer employment to people who otherwise could find it difficult to earn money. For instance students often welcome the chance to do ad-hoc work to supplement their student loans and also those with families for whom the traditional 9am to 5pm working day is no longer suited to their lifestyles. They also argue that employers benefit from increased flexibility. These contract terms provide a readily available workforce that can be used to cover sick leave, staff absence and allow companies to react quickly to the peaks and troughs associated with physical security deployment. That said, the cons far outweigh the pros.

As well as the aforementioned possibility that workers could be exploited, employers have no control over whether people are carrying out physical security work to supplement their income from a full time job. This has health and safety implications, as well as the possibility that the Working Time Directive might not be adhered to. Furthermore, if a security company has invested in training, uniforms and, in some cases, a Security Industry Authority (SIA) license, there is still no guarantee that an individual will want any work they are offered.

Bigger picture

The negative issues around zero hours contracts are also linked to the need to increase the professionalism of the security industry. The success, perception and reputation of the sector are inextricably linked to the people that work in it. Let’s make no bones about it – the security industry has a reputation for paying low wages. This is something that negatively affects employee retention rates, with absenteeism and low motivation often the result. Security needs to compete with other industries to be considered an attractive career choice, with more done in terms of employment benefits, training and career development. An outward looking approach enables money to be reinvested into employment benefits that attracts and retains people – such as salaried pay, bonuses, private healthcare, sick pay, enhanced paid holiday leave, – all of which can be phased in over a defined time.

P&O crew

Workers’ rights were brought to the fore recently when 800 P&O crew were sacked without notice and threatened with handcuffs if they refused to leave their ships. Their treatment has led to louder calls for an employment bill to stop workers from being treated like disposable labour. Should this happen then zero hours contracts will certainly be in the firing line, so security services providers should therefore be looking to behave in the most morally and ethically sound ways possible and end their reliance on them.


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