Zero hour contracts may be outlawed in New Zealand–updated

In another triumph of the Socialist Left of the National Party, the supposedly centre-right New Zealand government is considering outlawing zero hours contracts:

ONE News can exclusively reveal the Workplace Relations Minister is leaning towards outlawing the contracts and other employment provisions that he sees as unfair…

The Minister of Workplace Relations said the most punitive aspects of zero-hour contracts will be banned:

Mr Woodhouse has previously said a ban of zero-hour contracts would be an overreaction, but signalled the outlawing of aspects including:

•Restraint of trade clauses that stop someone working for a competing business if an employer does not provide the desired hours of work.

•The cancellation of shifts at short or no notice.

One reason for this is to neutralise a wedge issue with the Labour Party. The labour parties in both New Zealand and United Kingdom plan to outlaw zero hours contracts.

The NZ Labour Party’s Certainty at Work private member’s bill would require employment agreements to include an indication of the hours an employee will have to work to complete tasks expected of them.

Aaron Director pointed out that there are many real world business practices that behave differently from the caricatures in textbooks and arouse suspicious responses from economists (as well as from lay observers including lay observers with no ideological agenda).

Director said that visions of market power dance their heads and some of these suspect practices have been regulated for reasons he attributed in a large part to intellectual laziness. Ronald Coase made the same observation about knee-jerk responses to perplexing new business practices:

One important result of this preoccupation with the monopoly problem is that if an economist finds something—a business practice of one sort or other—that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation.

And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be rather large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.

Much of the lasting influence of Aaron Director and of Ronald Coase came from their ability to show that simple judgements about business practices often cannot withstand rigorous scrutiny.

The organisation of and the contracting practices in the labour market is not a complicated despite the best efforts of the Left over Left and unions to pretend that it is so, as Richard Epstein explains:

Labour markets are not characterized by tricky externalities. They do not pollute streams or require the creation of public goods.

They are not characterized by genuine breakdowns in information, as workers are in a position to observe the conditions of their employment on a day-to-day basis.

Left to their own devices, without explicit support from union activities, they will be highly competitive, and thus work hard to allocate scarce human capital to its most productive use.

Workers have the option to quit for higher wages, and employers can always seek out low cost techniques to reduce their labour costs. Any short-term dislocation for firms or individuals is more than offset by the overall increase in the system productivity, spurred in part by clear signals that should increase investments in human capital.

In the UK, the Work Foundation found that 80% of those on zero hours contracts are not looking for another job; only 26% wanted longer hours. This implies that 74% were content with their current work times arrangements.

The inherent inequality of bargaining power between employers and workers and the reserve army of the unemployed must not be all that they are cracked up to be these days if low paid workers have to sign legally enforceable restraint of trade agreements, which is a common complaint about zero hours contracts. The worker does not have guaranteed hours but must promise not to work for someone else in the same line of business.

Obviously, the few members of the reserve army of the unemployed lucky enough to have a low pay, insecure job that offers no regular hours have so many other job options that their employers must get them to agree not to quit and job-hop at will. Jobs must be readily available to low paid workers for otherwise why do employers insist on this restraint of trade in employment agreements?

If there is an inherent inequality of bargaining power between the bosses and the workers, why do employers seek restraint of trade agreements against these downtrodden workers who are supposed to have few options but to accept the miserable zero hours job offer before them?

The question that must always be asked is why do people deemed competent to vote and drive cars sign zero hours contract? What is in it for them – for the worker who signs these contracts – especially for workers who already have a job and are switching to a zero hours contract? David Friedman asked this question about the economics of restraint of trade agreements for employees:

…the employer who insists on an employee signing a non- competition agreement will find that he must pay, in additional wages or other terms of employment, the cost that the agreement imposes upon the employee, as measured by the employee and revealed in his actions.

It follows that the employer will insist on such an agreement only if he believes that its value to him is greater than its cost to the employee… The contract is designed, after all, with the objective of getting the other party to sign it.

If I am designing the contract and offering it to many other parties, that may put me in a position to commit myself to insisting on terms that give me a large fraction of the benefit that the contract produces. But it is still in my interest to maximize the size of that net benefit-which I do by only insisting on terms that are worth at least as much to me as they cost the other party.

If zero hours contracts are as bad as the Left over Left claim, the job quit rates for these contracts should be high, and people moving from existing jobs should be under-represented in this section of the labour force. If a worker already has a job, they have few reasons to sign up to such a purportedly poor job offer. Show me the evidence.

Unless we have a good idea about why firms are moving to zero hours contracts, which we don’t, and why employees sign these contracts rather than work for other employers who offer more regular hours of work, meddling in these still novel to the officious observer arrangements is risky.

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