The truth about zero-hour contracts

Caithlin Ng 9 March 2017

Findings from the Office for National Statistics revealed that 105,000 more people are working in zero-hour contracts compared with the same period in 2016. The figures also showed a slowdown in the growth of zero-hour contracts compared to the overall growth in UK jobs, a fact some explained as a result of the reputational costs of the Sports Direct model of precarious employment. Zero-hour contracts have been described by some as an opportunity for increased exibility, ideal for students and others who need to to work around their lifestyles. However, in a recent interview I conducted with a Deliveroo driver, I learnt how this exibility is often not what it seems.

The driver said, “I want to do this interview because this type of work is becoming common – so many other places are seeing what Deliveroo does and they want to do the same”. They wished to remain anonymous, explaining, “Don’t mention who I am because I don’t want to lose my job; they don’t like us talking to people. We’re not allowed to talk about Deliveroo to people outside of the company – I might get blacklisted or something”.

The promise of getting paid to ride and to work in around existing schedules has led many people to choose to work as a Deliveroo rider. Yet such work is not necessarily so ‘flexible’. The driver spoke of an “insinuation” that you are expected to work a number of weekend shifts in order not be blacklisted for other shifts on weekdays. With no guarantee of a set number of hours, drivers feel pressured to sign up to multiple shifts, often only finding out which shifts they are expected to work a couple of days in advance. “I have to keep all of my time free in case a shift comes up just so I can pay the bills. I don’t even know what days I’m working next week. You have to apply for every single shift and they just decide which ones you can do – it’s like setting aside full time hours for something that says it’s flexible.” 

Hours can drop from 40 to 10 a week, making bill payments and long-term planning difficult. If you are living at home or have a student loan, this might not be a concern. But for those who rely on low paid, zero-hour contract jobs as their primary source of income, this can mean a precarious existence.

In 2016, Deliveroo began to trial a scheme that would see drivers be paid per drop (delivery) rather than being guaranteed a minimum wage. Theoretically, this could see drivers earn more than the minimum wage depending on how many drops they manage to make in an hour. Yet in reality, this means that drivers are not paid for the time they spend waiting for delivery orders – time that is classed as not working.

Deliveroo makes work seem fun and flexible, but while this type of work might provide flexibility for students and those supplementing existing incomes, for people whose livelihoods rely on zero-hour contract jobs, such flexibility seems far from a worthwhile opportunity.