15 thoughts on “Quakers and Employment: Zero Hours Contracts

  1. 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. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. Hi simon,

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


  3. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

    1. @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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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!

  11. Pingback: Quakers and Employment | Bill Chadkirk | Researcher, Quaker, Activist

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