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The controversy over zero-hours contracts rages on. Some campaigners are calling for a complete ban – arguing that the growing use of these contracts amounts to the systematic casualisation of labour. However, when Ed Miliband made his big announcement on the issue last month, he stopped well short of total prohibition. Given his appetite for gesture politics, there must have been some overwhelmingly obvious reason for exercising restraint.

In an absorbing think-piece for Demos, Wingham Rowan makes this reason clear and argues that we must “discard the belief that irregular work for multiple employers is inherently inferior to a job”:

“…there are millions of people who simply can’t accommodate regular hours of employment in their life. They are carers, those with recurring but unpredictable medical issues, lone parents, students and people striving to start a home business but needing to earn around sporadic commitments to customers. These individuals who need odd hours of employment to fit around their changing circumstances are largely marginalised by current policy.”

Rowan calls for a “catalytic intervention” to make this way of working better suit the needs of those who depend on it – and he has a specific proposal in mind:

“…to initiate a service, perhaps called CEDAH: Central Database of Available Hours…

“CEDAH would be an official website in which any citizen could list the types of work they wished to do… Each person then defines any hours they are available for work on a given date.

“CEDAH will also ask for the terms on which they will accept bookings: how far will they travel? With how much notice? Do they have a minimum booking length?”

Potential buyers would enter in their requirements, make a selection from a list of matches and process the relevant payments online. The great advantage of such a system is that it would create a market in which ‘perfect information’ – or at least something approaching it – would be available to employees as well as employers:

“The very detailed data produced would be freely published. This allows anyone doing, or contemplating, irregular work to make informed decisions.

“Anyone selling in such a system would gain an official track record of their reliability. This would be objective – based on successfully completed and paid for bookings, not subjective; reliant on counterparties writing nice things about the individual. A record of reliability, even if built up in relatively lowly activity would increase the seller’s value to buyers and could open the door to progression.”

Crucially, users of the system would also be able to pinpoint the lines and locations of work that could earn them the most money – something that’s relatively easy when it comes to regular jobs, but much harder for irregular employment.

It all sounds wonderful, but if CEDAH is such a good idea, then why not let private companies develop it – just as they developed similar market-making services like eBay or AirBnB?

Well, as Wingham Rowan argues, there’s an excellent reason for the government to get involved, which is that it already is:

“Policy makers set the regulations, tax code and benefits regime that shapes this market. The state controls databases that prove a person’s identity and what functions they are licenced to perform. Politicians oversee agencies that promote work, tourism, business development and investment.

“At present, these facilities are unquestioningly structured to support a world aiming for jobs. They could instead, be progressively aligned with the needs of a much more fluid labour market.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the state occasionally developed IT systems that could provide a useful service to the people instead of just holding information about them?

12 comments for: We should make zero hours contracts work to the advantage of employees as well as employers

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