Last Friday, I wrote about the pitfalls of the so-called “maxi hours” model following the news that HMRC will investigate companies that mistreat freelancers in order to avoid paying national insurance contributions and benefits. This is an issue that’s crossed our path before now – and we take a dim view of it. As part of an ongoing series, we are looking more closely at the maxi hours phenomenon, what it is, why it’s wrong and how workers (young and old) can avoid getting their fingers burnt.
I nearly fell victim to this morally dubious way of doing business last year. A well-known broadcaster approached me and asked if I was in the market for shifts. I met with the producer who said they needed someone to work ten hour shifts (some of which started at 6am) for an undefined period of time. During this meeting, I remember feeling under distinct pressure to commit to as many shifts as possible after being told what an “opportunity” I had ahead of me. I was cajoled into accepting (for the most part) five days a week for two months. There was no word on what would happen after those two months but there was an unspoken assumption that the situation would continue indefinitely as I “shadowed” the team and learned the ropes. I was told the shifts could lead to a more permanent role but no absolute assurances.
In a way, I understood why they were doing it; it was time consuming and risky to advertise for a full-time employee when they could get someone in on the cheap for months on end, with no obligation to keep them on.
The pay wasn’t earth shattering but I calculated that the work could take me into a higher tax bracket if I worked beyond a certain period of time and I would quite possibly be enrolled into a VERY mediocre pension scheme I hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. (That’s if the company even wanted me past a few months – massive unknown). The problem was that I didn’t know what would happen after two months, and in the meantime I would be prevented from maintaining all my other work that existed beforehand – and then what would happen if the shifts stopped?
I quit after the first shift. When I tried to get paid for that shift – a process that took four months, 14 pieces of documentation, a character reference and dozens of emails – I had to sign a contract that appeared to resemble a zero hours contract (in which there was no obligation for the employer to provide work or for me to accept it) but with the vague caveat that I would have to commit to providing services for any “individual assignment”, defined only as an “occasion” when called upon me to provide services (with no clarity on the time period of this “occasion”). Moreover, the contract said I would be called upon to provide my services “from time to time” – not exactly an accurate description of almost full time work five days a week for at least two months. The contract mentioned a pension, but it wasn’t entirely clear if or when company would be obliged to provide it .
All in all, the terms of employment were mired in uncertainty that made planning other work impossible (indeed, the contract forbid me from taking other work while committed to an “assignment” unless I went to my line manager for permission). The fact that I wasn’t really allowed any real flexibility, that I felt under pressure to accept effectively full-time work for a short burst of time, makes me believe I was being primed for a maxi hours contract.
Have you had a similar experience? Let me know and stay tuned for our verdicts on the employment practices of Uber and Deliveroo…