Shetland Arts this week offered reassurances that staff employed on “zero hours” contracts are not subjected to the “appalling” sort of conditions faced by employees at some big UK companies.
The organisation is advertising for events assistants to work at Mareel, and has frequently used the term “zero hours” in its recruitment literature and adverts.
Many national media reports this week have focused on allegations that multinational firms including McDonald’s, Amazon and Sports Direct are exploiting the contracts at workers’ expense.
In light of the “disreputable behaviour of some employers”, Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons told this newspaper that “for reasons of clarity” he would be re-examining the use of the term.
The main criticism of the contracts nationally – trade unions are calling for them to be outlawed – is that they offer no guarantee of regular work and an unstable income.
But Mr Gibbons pointed out that there were some key differences in the way the contracts are used by Shetland Arts.
“It is in contrast with some appalling behaviour that is happening at a UK level,” he said, adding he hoped the issue could be addressed by simply “placing a statement in our recruitment section”.
Crucially, he said staff on zero hours deals were allowed to have other jobs, to turn down shifts that didn’t suit them and to receive all employment rights such as holiday and sick pay.
“It’s about being a flexible employer,” Mr Gibbons said.
Brian Smith, the isles’ main Unison representative, said earlier this week that if Shetland Arts was employing zero hours workers it needed to “stop it right away” because it was a “disgusting way to treat employees”.
After hearing Mr Gibbons’ justification, he said: “If that is the case, they need to think about a different terminology, and spell out exactly what they have in mind in advertisements.”
Shetland Arts decided to employ a mixture of zero hours staff, full-time workers and volunteers when Mareel first opened last year, Mr Gibbons explained. Most of the staff are working “fairly regular hours”.
“Within the first three months [after the building opened], we were starting to convert zero hours into part-time and full-time, and we’re continuing to do that as we get the balance of staffing needs right.
“I think we’ll always have some ‘zero hours’ staff. Demand fluctuates significantly depending on large-scale events. Some people don’t want to have to work – we offer them hours and they choose [whether] to take them. A lot of our students work at the cafe-bar and help out at events.”
Shetland Arts chairman Danus Skene echoed Mr Gibbons’ remarks. He has not detected any particular dissatisfaction among workers, but will “keep my ears pricked” to ensure there weren’t any problems.
“The classic argument against zero hours is you tie somebody up, give them no assurances of work, [and] people don’t know where they stand,” Mr Skene said.
“They think they’re getting employment but get shoved to the back of the queue. That isn’t the experience where you have got young people who are students looking for part-time employment.”
This newspaper also approached the isles’ other big trusts and public sector bodies.
The SIC said it had no employees on zero hours contracts. The local authority does sometimes use pools of casual staff, for example supply teachers, who don’t have any set hours.
Such individuals are not defined as “zero hours” workers, though one council source said the supply teaching arrangement was “virtually identical” to the employee/employer relationship for Shetland Arts’ casual staff.
NHS Shetland chairman Ian Kinniburgh said it had no zero hours workers. It operates “bank contracts for staff who want to work flexibly”, but again there was “no commitment either way”.
Shetland Amenity Trust “technically” has no zero hours contracts either. A spokeswoman for the trust said it did employ some staff “on a casual basis at peak season times”. Such staff would have similar hours from week to week, with the occasional offer of extra work for specific events.
Shetland Recreational Trust manager James Johnston said: “I can confirm that SRT do not employ any staff on zero hours contracts.”
UK business secretary Vince Cable is under growing pressure to ensure that a review of the controversial terms and conditions surrounding zero hours copntracts is far-reaching and results in greater protection for workers.
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said the flexibility offered by zero hours contracts “comes with it a responsibility not to abuse it” for employers.