Quakers and Employment: Zero Hours Contracts

This article, from the new October 2013 issue of The Young Quaker, explores issues around the use of zero-hours contracts at Friends House in London. You can read the full issue here.

This article was contributed to TYQ by a worker in the Hospitality Department of Friends House in London, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Historically speaking, Quakers are, though not morally exceptional, often among the first to realise that a common practice is immoral, to challenge it within their own communities, and to actively take that discernment out into the wider world. Moving against the grain of a society, Quakerism often helps drag society in the right direction. However, what we find today in Friends House London is the reverse. Instead of leading the way, Quaker business practice itself is being led by the economic and cultural orthodoxy of the market and corporate “experts”. This is to the detriment of Quaker values and to the detriment of the material well-being of employees of Britain Yearly Meeting.

When compared to those working in equivalent jobs across the capital and elsewhere, staff in the Hospitality Department of Friends House London are better off. In terms of hourly rate, we are paid over the London Living Wage, we receive good holiday pay and can participate in the pension scheme. However, many of us are also employed on what management likes to call “variable hours contracts”. What these should be called is “zero hours contracts”. These staff have no guaranteed hours each week. They may work a full 35 hour week, a single shift of 7.5 hours, or they may not work at all.

Nationally speaking, alarms have been sounded about these contracts. Unite the Union, the recognised union at Friends House, are explicitly opposed to them. Until recently, though not perfect, BYM’s use of such contracts actually provided an example of the organisation largely adhering to Quaker values. There was an understanding that a zero hours contract was a two way street, whereby a manager would offer largely regular work and employees could refuse it or specify their weekly availability without fear of losing out on hours in the future.

This arrangement suited many workers, who were often students, and in practice often led to zero hours staff having, if not as much and as regular work as set hours employees, then at least a measure of parity with them. Consequently, zero hours contracts, along with the existence of pay inequality and a myriad other things perhaps at odds with Quaker values, did not become an issue, and allowed those employed on them to lead satisfactory, if not ideal, existences. Dangerously, this is no longer true.

Before I explain further, some context is necessary. In Friends House, there is a considerable gulf between those who work ‘below stairs’ (the cafe, the restaurant, the conference rooms, and reception) and those in the offices. This holds true in terms of interaction between the two halves of the organisation – i.e. social interaction is minimal – but also in terms of the conditions of employment and the demographics of those employed. Those below stairs are more likely to be young, and/or non-British born, and speakers of a primary language that is not English. These workers are also less likely to be in the union or know of its existence than those upstairs. They are also on the lowest rates of pay in the building and, it would appear, are the only group of staff amongst whom zero hours contracts are used.

Over the last couple of years the hospitality business has undergone significant changes, changes that are acutely apparent in the way zero hours contracts are now used. What has happened very visibly in the last year, but has been an ongoing process for longer, is the erosion of the existing culture of respect and compromise by a very different culture. This culture concerns itself with the needs of business and the impositions of hierarchy in the name of those needs. It does this not only at the expense of Quaker values, but at the cost of the well-being of many of its employees.

Its most visible manifestation came with the employment of people from the corporate world to fill managerial roles, and the restructuring of the organisation’s pay scale. Its presence is now being felt with a restructuring of the hospitality business itself, including the introduction of formal clocking in and out, and supervisory roles, euphemistically titled “Team Leaders”. This is justified with talk of “professionalisation” and “flexibility”, and with frequent reminders that BYM must keep in mind the norms of the market. Quaker values are at most given lip service, if they are mentioned at all, whereas the values of profit for profit’s sake are stated as inarguable fact.

For many workers, particularly though not only for those on zero hours contracts, this cultural shift means a big change in our experience of being employees of BYM. We no longer have much say over when and for how long they work, and cannot count on knowing what is happening week to week. Some staff, particularly in the summer months, can go for weeks or even months without a single shift. Fundamentally, and not uncommonly, this means that zero hour contract jobs cannot be relied upon to pay rent and basic living costs. If staff object to all this, they are doing so to people in positions of power that are largely unaccountable, at least to the employees themselves. When staff have verbally challenged the management, the latter have denied that anything is wrong, countering concerns with evasive non-answers, and reminders of how much better the conditions of work are in Friends House than in most similar workplaces, such as Starbucks or Costa.

Staff have even been encouraged to seek secondary sources of income. This neglects the fact that their precarious position means that zero hours staff do not have schedules that permit that, and attempts to normalise the idea that in order to earn a living people should have to have multiple jobs. Furthermore, it implicitly acknowledges that zero hours contracts, despite BYM’s commitment to a living wage, result in its employees earning less than they need to survive.

Though I am not a Quaker, I have spent considerable time around a range of Quaker organisations. I thought that Friends did more than just make formal, shallow concessions to their values, while allowing a dominant, harmful culture to dictate how their organisation behaves.
I thought that even when this is difficult, when there are economic and cultural pressures to succumb to “How the rest of the world does things”, Quakers were courageous enough to be committed to having the values of equality, honesty, the ends not justifying the means, and respect for autonomy permeate all that they do. What I see in Friends House is far from this, and as a result of this harmful cultural change, it is not only employee’s wallets, standard of living, and ability to live independently that have taken a significant hit, but my trust in the ability of Quakers to practice what they preach.

Britain Yearly Meeting Response

TYQ asked BYM for a comment about the use of zero-hours contracts at Friends House. They told us this:

“Variable hours contracts have been used since 2010 by BYM for staff in several departments. They provide a flexible arrangement offering benefits to both employee and employer. They give the hospitality company the flexibility to increase staff in busy periods and to cover for absences. And an employee who cannot or prefers not to commit to a regular working pattern can work flexibly.
Staff on these contracts are not treated differently in more general respects from all other staff. Our employment practices include: a commitment to providing good training opportunities and working conditions; our 1:4 salary ratio from the highest to lowest; salaries which are in the upper quartile of equivalent employers; and our accreditation as a Living Wage Employer. We have a robust whistle-blowing policy and grievance procedure. All staff, on all types of contract, are invited to join the union.
Trustees are glad to be joining in a discussion of the nature of a Quaker workplace, glad that staff are being encouraged to appreciate the different types of work carried out by their colleagues, and recently minuted that “good employment practice should be Quaker employment practice and vice versa. Quaker values inform all the work done, and how it is done. A good workplace enables good service as part of its culture.”

Jennifer Barraclough, Clerk, BYM Trustees

So What Is a Zero-Hours Contract Anyway?

The topic of zero-hours contracts has hit headlines recently, with workers and unions criticising a form of employment that can leave workers without the ability to support themselves and their families. But just what are they and why are they such a problem?

A zero-hours contract is, quite simply, a contract which doesn’t guarantee you work in any given week.
Generally, when you sign a contract, you’re guaranteed a minimum number of hours; there’s a contractual arrangement that you’ll work at least that many hours, and you’ll get paid for at least that many hours. You know you’ll earn a certain amount of money in a week and you’ll be able to use that money to pay your rent, feed your family, and pay your bills.

In a zero-hours contract, there is no guarantee. The boss might ask you to come in for one shift, or to come in every single day; you don’t know. Not only does that mean you can’t make plans, or find other work, it also means you can’t rely on making enough money to live.

Employers insist these contracts are ‘flexible’, but the power over when and if you get work is generally in the bosses’ hands not the workers’. And 87% of those on them said they’d prefer not to be on a contract which promises less than three hours’ work per week.

These contracts often have poor conditions, with 36% not including holiday pay and 77% not including sick pay. They’re also much more common amongst younger workers, with over half of those under 30 being on contracts guaranteeing less than three hours per week.

15 Replies to “Quakers and Employment: Zero Hours Contracts”

  1. tom hopkins

    I read with interest the article regarding the use of ‘zero hours contracts’ at Friends House, and find it very disappointing that a member of staff feels this way. I do not have an insight into the workings of the hospitality department, but my understanding is that this department has two objectives. One – to promote Quaker Values and Two – quite simply to make money to fund the work that we as Quakers do.
    From what I have read and seen it is quite evident that objective one is meet, with the tangible evidence such as accreditations for the restaurant, the use of environmentally friendly hand dries in use in Friends House etc.
    With regards to objective two – I believe every business experiences peeks and troughs and seasonality. It is clearly unsustainable to employ staff if they are not needed. So the use of ‘zero hours staff’ is a necessary evil. Are these zero hours staff informed of how they will be used when they apply for the job? is it clearly written in their contract? These are questions I do not know the answer to, but I expect the answer would be yes. I am very impressed with all the other benefits that zero hours staff receive.
    Friends House needs professionals from a ‘corporate background’ to run the Hospitality Company, because as previously stated it does have an objective to make money to fund our work.

    In Friendship

  2. simon gray

    I’m disappointed by the formal response from bym; it does look somewhat like the kind of non-answer using a lot of words to not actually say anything we often see from the press offices of the corporate world when challenged on dodgy practice.

    That said, if the bym press office wasn’t actually challenged on specific allegations but rather on the general point of general terms and conditions, it may be the only response which could have been expected, so what I would like to see would be a series of specific allegations levelled against the employer, and the employer’s response to those specific allegations.

    On a related note, paying significantly over a market wage to any employee in any job – regardless of the level – is actually not as employee-friendly as it might seem; when people are paid significantly more than a job might be worth elsewhere, that effectively traps them into staying there to put up with whatever other rubbish conditions they might be expected to work under, because at the end of the day few people can afford to take significant pay cuts.

    • Peter Grant

      Picking up on Simon’s “paying significantly over a market wage” is something I’m currently experiencing.
      My problem isn’t being able to afford taking a significant pay cut, but actually getting potential employers to believe that my top priority isn’t the money but is linked to job satisfaction.
      And please note, I’m not actually working for some really ethical business but a company hell bent on getting as much money from it’s ‘customers’ as possible.

    • Hannah Brock

      Hi simon,

      Just to say that BYM were sent the article itself – so this is what the response was responding to!!


  3. simon gray

    In partial answer to Tom’s point about Friends House / BYM needing ‘outside’ people from ‘the corporate world’ to come in and run the business sides of our work – that’s a fair point.

    But why is it that there are apparently so few Quakers from the corporate world capable of doing this kind of work? Why are there so few Quakers these days working in the corporate world bringing Quaker witness to bear to demonstrate that profit and social responsibility aren’t automatically mutually exclusive? Where are the Quaker hoteliers, the Quaker chefs, the Quaker conference facility managers? Are we so wound up in doing what we see as righteous work we do not think it’s important to bring righteousness to providing a good place for people to stay on holiday, to cooking them nice food, and to providing them with an excellent venue to come together to learn and make decisions in?

    Similarly the observation in the original article about those who work upstairs compared with those who work downstairs – this isn’t a new thing being observed, I first noticed in 15 years ago when I used to be around Woodbrooke and Friends House quite a bit more than I am these days.

    • John Barber-Bacon

      Quaker hotelier here! I applied for a position in Friends house hospitality dept. about a decade ago (give or take a few years) and didn’t get it. Not surprising really – they were offering very good pay and it was something of a long shot. They did however say that they got someone with (I think) 15 years experience. I assume that if they didn’t want me (a lifelong Quaker) then they must have found someone who at least sympathised with Quaker views.

  4. Mike King

    I have just completed some years of research into Quakers and ethical business practice, to be published in April as ‘Quakernomics: An Ethical Capitalism’. As other commentators have said here, and as the original article also suggests, the Quakers generally have risen above their times in employment practice. The adoption by Friends House of the living wage is in line with that history, but I would tend to agree that the zero-hours contract is not. As has been said here, the benefits of the zero-hours contract accrue are more to the employer than the worker, perhaps greatly more. It is however very difficult to overcome an entire culture, where middle-class people expect cheap goods and services almost as a right. And it is largely middle-class people, myself included, who benefit from the hospitality at Friends House. Put simply, our sandwiches, soup and coffee are too cheap, and the price is paid by the workers at the bottom, either in low wages (not the case here) or in the debilitating anxiety of irregular wages (definitely the case here). As a cultural phenomenon it is very hard to resist however, and has only one remedy: the acceptance that it is absolutely the government’s role to intervene with the issue of low and uncertain wages at the bottom. Quaker industrial history and its involvement in legislation shows that is the way forward. Quakers are Liberal by political history, but, as this case shows, have an obligation to vote for an intelligent, Fabian, socialism. Let press Parliament to end the zero-hours contract, and let us support Labour if it is the party willing to do that.

    • simon gray

      @mike – just one thing to pick up on there – you say ~’our food is too cheap, middle class people are demanding cheap food’~ – out of interest, what do you think about food being cheap enough for poor people to be able to afford?

  5. Gwen Schaffer

    I think we should guarantee a living wage to our employees, not only in the hourly pay but also in a guaranteed number of hours which produces an income a person can live on. I should like to know how many people we employ at Friends house lack this guarantee. I avoid organisations which do not treat their employees well …….. !

  6. Roger Hill

    I have had indirect experience of this practice. It is interesting that employers (in the stronger position) always say “it is good for all concerned”. Try the employee experience to see how that works. Always on call…never know when or if you will receive a call…since hours are uncertain. It affects benefit entitlement…when NOT employed it is not possible to replace pay by benefits. In fact this kind of practice only suits a very tiny proportion of employees (those who are not bothered if they work or not ! ) . Again Quakers are unable to discern the obvious……….that it is not acceptable!

  7. Jon Long

    I have had one of those days when I think I’m going to literally explode. My benign pituitary tumour has got bigger and I just found out the wait for further possible brain surgery may be even longer . Both of my wonderful, talented kids were struggling to find work today , and I’ve just found out the utterly loathsome international corporate reptile Simon Stevens is the new CEO of our NHS.

    They say bad news comes in threes – but not today – I can’t believe my eyes

    I’m sorry – I have to say this – I really really need, for the sake of my own teetering sanity, to use some direct and intemperate language – please bear with my need for three well placed profanities – what the **** are we playing at Friends House??????

    Come on….I mean please…..COME ON!

    I’m a Quaker because after 30 years of insane corporate B******S like this I went bonkers and had to find a safe haven where sanity, fairness, creativity, equality and social justice prevail – where they are modeled, incubated and nurtured as proven, shining examples of how things need to be and can be

    We need an employee coop which produces and distributes our food at Friends House which everyone is a stakeholder in right through the value chain – that much is so blindingly obvious – it’s out caff for God’s sake! If we can’t even organize our own caff on our own emerging principles we need shooting

    If no-one else will step up and make it happen I will – let’s stop tossing about

    Good grief….I’m off for a lie down

  8. Richard Hankins

    I am horrified that Quakers would even think of taking part in this latest manifestation of making money at the expense of people they employ. I am not a Quaker, but am a regular attender at my local meeting, and this article means I will not be applying for membership until this practice is not only stamped out in any Quaker run organisation, and I see Quakers actively campaigning to have it made illegal in the country as a whole.

    Of course, I understand this is not “profit for profit’s sake”, since Quakers are a charity and don’t make money simply to enrich themselves. The money made goes to “good work”, of which there are many admirable examples. Does that make it any better? No. How can it be a good thing to say, help Palestinians while people in London are being abused?

    Let’s be clear what this abuse is. Its not about clocking in since this is a perfectly good way of ensuring that people who say they are at work, really are at work. Using “team leaders” should not be an issue either, unless those employed as such are abusing their position of authority. There is nothing wrong with hierarchy either, provided the authority given to those higher up the hierarchy is not used to dominate and exploit those lower down.

    No, the abuse is demanding someone be available for work, but then failing to give them that work. Its like asking a doctor to be “on call” all night without pay. The doctor may well have an undisturbed night in his bed – but would not consider taking on the responsibility without pay.

    Of course variable demands for staff hours have to be managed carefully to keep costs down. But that has been done in the past by employing a full time “core staff” who can cope with the quieter periods alone, and then taking on contract staff when more effort is required. Contract staff are not zero hours staff. They are paid enough to cover all the things that regular staff get, like sick pay, national insurance, and holidays. Using zero hours contracts is just the latest excuse to avoid employing people under what are widely regarded as “decent conditions” in Britain.

  9. Rachel Hankins

    If Cadbury and all the other famous Quaker business people could read about these alleged conditions in a Quaker-run organisation, they would be turning in their graves. I do not need to remind Quakers that these business people broke the mould of employment conditions of their time, provided decent housing for their employees, schools, village greens etc. Given that they were in a highly competitive commercial environment, their business model still had to turn a profit after the costs of their factories, materials, wages, housing, doctors, schools etc. Indeed, “despite the expenditure, the company’s sales more than quadrupled over the following decade. The scoffers who said the Cadbury brothers’ ethics would drive them to bankruptcy had to swallow their words.” (quoted from http://www.ekklesia.co.uk). Deborah Cadbury’s book “The Chocolate Wars” (2010) shows how close the Cadbury brothers came to packing it all in – it was not an easy ride and they did not fund their businesses and employee welfare from their own wealth – but by running their businesses well. She also points out that Quaker capitalism was much more ethical than today’s capitalism. This is not a plea to return to a grass-was-greener era, but a plea to consider how to operationalise Quaker principles appropriately in business today.

    I joined the Quaker and Business network because I hoped that, in some small way, we could influence debates about present-day capitalism by promoting Quaker ethics and principles – from a position of being business people ourselves (ie we would not be promoting the naive “all profit is bad” message). It did not occur to me that this forum would end up questioning the practices of high profile Quaker-run establishments such as Friends House!

    I do not know the details, but imagine the ‘hospitality business’ in question is a trading arm, set up to covenant its profits to the Quaker charity. Those employed to run it may well have to make ‘profit for profit’s sake’ if they are required to produce levels of income for the charity that are unachievable without zero hours contracts etc. This is where the problem could lie and could therefore be solved – by questioning whether the charity has done its sums so as to generate the maximum possible ‘profit’ to plough into ‘righteous work’. Those brought in to run the hospitality business may not be part of the charity’s management, so would probably not be part of such discussions and calculations.

    Charities with trading arms are using a perfectly normal, legal and ethical model – indeed I ran a training company as a trading arm for a branch of RELATE myself in the 1990s. However, I was in a position to ensure the reasonable costs of the business (including proper salaries, holiday pay, training and all the normal obligations of employers) were adequately covered before agreeing the target level of return to the charity.

    I have been to many (non-Quaker) conferences at Friends House and often admired the efficiency of the catering and service side – something sorely lacking in many charities (and so-called non-profits) that turn their hands to running cafes to boost their income, who clearly lack the know-how to organise and execute food service efficiently (even if the food is fine). I would like to know if the employment conditions at Woodbrooke and the Priory Rooms in Birmingham are the same. Perhaps we should all ask the staff next time we are served coffee or lunch there.

  10. Richard Hankins

    Having done a bit more investigation of this issue, I would like to update my post above. A quick Google of the issue reveals a document (in MS Word) which answers most of the points raised here. Its available here

    Now, I have to say that the policy as set out in this document looks very good. For me, a crucial difference between this and other zero hours contracts I have seen is in this statement:

    “Under BYM contracts, the employee can work for other employers should they choose to do so. They do not have to accept working hours offered to them.”

    Most zero hours contracts require the employee to be exclusively available to the employer, and thus they are in severe danger in any one week of having no work, and thus no income at all. As I said in my previous post, this is like being “on call” but with no pay. And that I regard as unacceptable.

    Its a pity that Jennifer (Clerk of BYM Trustees) didn’t cite this document in her response. Her response make it look as though BYM is evading the issue.

    However……..I still have to ask why this article was written at all, if everything is fine with Friend’s House variable hours contracted staff?

    The suspicion remains that there is a mismatch between the stated policy and the actual practice on the ground. For instance, its all too easy to state that employees can refuse work that is offered without any penalty, and yet then be put quietly to the bottom of the list next time work is offered to the zero hours staff. As with many “fair employment practices” (non-discrimination at interviews, etc) its very hard to know what was actually going on in the heads of the employer staff as they interview people, or try to share out a limited supply of work.

    Its also difficult to establish the status of this Word document. Its dated (August 2013) and is recent. No name on it though. It looks like some working document possibly circulated between BYM Trustees. Is it implemented policy? Has anyone checked that the policy has been translated into working practices on the ground?

    As a wider point, I note a fair amount of justified outrage in the general press about these zero hours contracts. They are quite widely described as “abusive” – even if legal. BYM may have ensured they have avoided the abusive types of contract (though questions on that remain) – in which case some attention to the PR side of linking “Quakers” and “zero hours contracts” needs some attention!

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