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Zero hour contracts? Sounds like a modern-day ‘Victorian workhouse’ to me!

When we think of zero hour contracts, often the image that comes to mind is of the miserable workers dressed in the bright red and blue of Sports Direct uniform.

The Sports Direct inquiry saw that the employees were subject to contracts that stripped them of human agency and power. Such contracts limited workers to a life of uncertainty, and with hours never guaranteed, employees could be left wondering whether they will be able to pay their rent.

However, Matthew Taylor Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the lead reviewer of the Government-commissioned ‘Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices’, claims that zero hour contracts can be a positive aspect of work-life balance.

At the Peninsula’s Annual HR and Business Leaders’ Forum, Taylor argued that zero hour contracts offer genuine two-way flexibility, beneficial for both employer and employee.

Whilst Taylor recognised that when misused, zero hour contracts undermine employee security and can damage people’s sense of fairness and respect, he argued that zero hour contracts can ensure genuine two-way flexibility.

Taylor discusses a type of working that means employers only have to pay employees for the hours that they work. Additionally, and equally as beneficial, employees can work when they want to, ensuring a work-life balance.

Does this mean no more rush-hour traffic!?

This type of working is almost futuristic, it seems as if we are stuck in a rut of a ‘9-5’ day, and anything other than this becomes ‘temporary’ or ‘part-time’ work. However, if the internal structure of work could be changed to reflect the desirable ‘two-way’ flexibility, this type of working would become the norm.

It is this two-way flexibility that is becoming more and more desirable for both employers and employees.

Taylor claims that zero hour contracts create greater flexibility in the workplace, allowing employers to lower their projected costs. Additionally, when hiring people on zero hour contracts, employers will only have to pay their staff for the hours they need to meet their demands.

Moreover, in a time where more and more people are entering in to the work place, flexibility has become a growing requirement at work. Allowing many people who need to work outside the normalised ‘9-5’ day, to work in non-standard ways.

Taylor recognises this potential for zero hour contracts and flexible working, as a contemporary feature of modern work, ensuring a work-life balance available to all workers.

However, the issues of flexibility and work-life balance are gendered. The implications of a work-life balance rarely affect men, and in most cases impact upon working mothers the most. Just think about it for a second, when was the last time that your male colleague at 3pm packed up his desk, picked up his briefcase and left to pick the kids up from school?

Of course, this article does not argue that men continue to do nothing within the household, because that is simply not true! Men are now participating in more housework than ever before, such as the fun-filled tasks of nappy-changing, food shopping and cleaning (can you sense my excitement?). More and more men are now committed to ensuring equality at home, evident in their increased involvement in their children’s extra-curricular activities and cooking!

And whilst this article focuses on the dynamics of a heterosexual couple, in no way does this disregard same-sex couples, we all know how annoying house work is!

The employment taken up by women is often part-time or flexible work, because they are expected to continue fulfilling the roles of housewife and mother. It is true that we are living in a time where more and more women are being introduced in to high-powered occupations, previously dominated by men. But when we think of the duties concerning housework and childcare, while some men do share domestic chores the typical image of the 1950’s housewife springs to mind, and despite women’s exponential introduction in to the work place, this has not changed.

Many women are still subject to the conflicting demands placed upon them, where they become acutely aware of their position as a Mother, as a carer, and a working woman.

Does she do everything she can to excel and succeed in her career and risk neglecting her family? Or does she fully commit to the role of mother and housewife, and risk feeling undervalued and without purpose?

Or, in the hope to be a working woman and a devoted mother, does she attempt to be both? In today’s society many women strive to be super wives, mothers and earners all at the same time. Arguably, it is this balance between roles that means that women are often associated with and at the centre of ‘work-life’ balance. With woman’s primary role as mother and housewife, many women feel they are unable to break from this fundamental aspect of womanhood.

Therefore in order to avoid neglecting their ‘inherent’ function as mothers, many women’s professional lives must be adaptable, they must accommodate the duties of a mother and housewife. Consequently, the ‘temporary’ or ‘part-time’ nature of flexible work becomes adopted by women, as in order for women to exist with a foot on each side, they must be willing to compensate.

The phrases ‘flexible working’ and ‘work-life’ balance are rooted within women’s need to balance opposing roles. Generally, it does not reflect men’s position as a worker or as a husband or father, because unlike women, men do not face the same conflicting demands.

It could be argued that the introduction of remote working offers a realistic and modern solution. With more and more people now working from home, the boundary between the home and work is being broken down. Men, who work from home are contributing to childcare responsibilities and housework, all the while relieving the pressure from their other half. It is these men who are not confined by a ‘9-5’ working structure at the office, that effectively do ‘their share’ of the housework and childcare duties. This type of working does offer an apt solution to women’s fundamental association with part-time work. With the option for both partners to work from home, the idea of work and home as separate worlds is deconstructed. Meaning that both parents have the opportunity to have a foot on each side.

But all the while working structures remain in the traditional ‘9-5’ day, women will continue to be constrained by conflicting roles. However, can it truly be said that with the introduction of Taylor’s all-inclusive form of flexible working, women’s inequitable position will change?

Catherine Butler
Assistant Editor-in-Chief

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