The elephant in the room we refuse to negotiate with: fixed term contracts and their indominable reign

11 mins read

Every year, as conkers begin to line the pavements, leaves gradually transform streets into autumnal ice rinks and that one cul-de-sac neighbour places a pumpkin on their doorstep around a month prematurely, many stores begin to enlist “Christmas Temp” job roles online.

These Christmas Temp roles are especially popular among students, often being part-time and therefore flexible opportunities in what seems to be an increasingly concentrated jobs market. So convenient and falling at an ever-pressing time for the wallets of university-goers and young adults alike, there’s got to be a catch, right?

In a deep-dive into the Christmas temporary-contracts market the UK finds itself a haven for, I found myself in an existential hunt, not just for a job, but the true meaning of a fixed-term contract: a way of usefully enshrining the rights of student workers into a single term, or merely a loophole for employers to take advantage of a particularly vulnerable group at a particularly difficult time of year?

Ironically enough, I had a job on my hands.

In the UK, the fixed-term employees (protection against unfair treatment) regulations have, since 2002, aimed to enshrine the rights of fixed-term employees in the country. This means that employers utilising fixed-term contracts must ensure that, except for exceptional circumstances, fixed-term employees have access to the same entitlements and benefits as their permanent counterparts.

This can include access to internal vacancies and pension schemes; and perhaps even the bonus Cadburys selection box at Christmas, although, admittedly, there’s no existing precedent for that. Fixed-term contracts have always been exceptional in regard to workers’ rights; in 1998, the Court of Appeal decided that a BBC employee, hired on numerous consecutive temporary contracts, had no right to appeal for unfair dismissal, since she’d signed a “waiver”, excluding her from many employment rights.

The Court concluded that employers could use fixed-term contracts to exclude worker’s rights. In fact, it even admitted that some employers abuse the system through the use of this corridor.

agreement blur business close up
Image Credit: Pixabay on

Since then, contract clarity has somewhat redeemed itself, with the state of play largely improved in 2023. Temporary workers have the same redundancy terms as their permanent counterparts after two years and automatically morph into permanent workers themselves after four years of fixed-term contracts for the same company.

In the 21 years passed since the last adaptation to the rights of fixed-term workers, the focus seems to have shifted towards zero-hours contracts and the gig economy, with the issues of temporary workers taking a back seat, however with employers still able to dismiss fixed-term employees prematurely on the condition of early termination being mentioned within the contract, the rights of temporary employees, rather like members of the gig economy, rest inferior to workers on indefinite terms.

Temporary contracts are demographically exceptional, too; young people make up a large share of temporary workers in the UK and while the gender gap has begun to close in recent years, black women are still almost twice as likely to find themselves in a fixed-term contract than white women.

Although Scotland, and the UK as a whole, has a good track record of maintaining workers’ rights, the topic has come under considerable scrutiny in more recent times; in August, the “minimum service levels bill”, which was condemned by the European Trade Union Federations, allows employers to sack workers who do not obey working obligations on strike days.

Though the government argued that the bill was a vital reform, ensuring the continuation of essential services during strike action, the unions labelled the bill as another blow to the UK’s already “draconian” rights to strike. In the news itself recently for mass protests organised by the CGT, the largest union in the country, against proposed pension reforms, France provides fuel for debate over the protection of long-beleaguered fixed-term workers.  The term, “CDD contract” ensures the rights of fixed-term workers in many Francophone countries, including France and Canada.

To begin with, the system of CDDs and CDIs (with CDI contracts bearing a close resemblance to permanent contracts in the UK) in France reduces the possibility of what can often come across as profligate jargon into two streamlined concepts, which means that workers’ rights not only exist, but are understood. In a 2019 citizens’ advice Scotland survey, almost a 1/5 of respondents weren’t confident that they knew their rights.

When workers’ rights are accessible and logical for all those who find themselves affected by them, that would be less of an issue, but the UK’s arguably antiquated approach to fixed-term contracts makes that an even more damning figure. Across the channel, a CDD contract must finish on a certain date, with no terms attached.

Though during a minimal trial period of no more than three weeks that contract can be ruptured, there is no uncertainty in the nature of what a fixed-term contract is. This provides job assurance to workers, who have no doubt over the length of security. As long as it is mentioned in the contract, fixed-term workers can be dismissed before the planned expiration of their contract in the UK.

Consecutive previous French governments, starting in the 1980s have been extremely cautious with the further loosening of employment contract regulations in the country, for fear of temporary contracts being taken advantage of by employers. Since 1986, that caution has prevented temporary contracts from being used to replace previous permanent positions, a habit which the UCU considers to be far too prominent in UK universities, including those in Scotland.

close up shot of a person writing on a contract
Image Credit: RODNAE Productions on

That is not to say that France’s situation is pristine: 52% of workers admitted to never having consulted their workers’ rights document in a 2016 study. More worrying still is the fact that CDD workers were the least educated on their entitlements. Fixed-term workers get the short straw globally, however there is reason to believe that the foundations on which a large share of workers rights many take for granted rest are imperilled.

One bill introduced by the UK government as part of their removal of “EU red tape” threatens the rights of workers in the UK. The Brexit Freedoms Bill, introduced by Jacob Rees Mogg under Liz Truss’s brief spell as PM, was heralded as an investment incentive by the then Tory cabinet, however with the government’s outspoken intention to “sunset” thousands of pieces of workers’ rights legislation originating from EU directives, the then general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady feared the consequential disappearance of “vital protections”. If the precedent set by the current government is anything to go by, O’Grady could very well be correct; while in most European countries, including France, the hiring of temporary agency workers in order to remedy the disruption caused by striking workers is illegal, in July a new bill which allows this practice to take place received royal ascension.  

It would be naïve to make a sweeping judgement on the success of fixed-term contracts however: introduced in Spain at the beginning of the 1980s to combat sclerotic employment figures, temporary and flexible contracts bolstered youth and female employment. The Mitterand era in France provides further evidence for this pattern. Yet, to follow such a simplistic approach to a technical issue would not be doing it justice; from a less numerical and more anecdotal standpoint, there are many examples of fixed-term contracts having a negative impact on welfare. At peak usage, two-thirds of Spain’s workforce were employed on temporary contracts and some of those employed in retail reported feeling an obligation to work hours they were not comfortable with, for fear of their contract not being renewed.

As aforementioned, in the UK fixed term employers can terminate contracts prematurely as long as this condition is mentioned in the contract itself. Since their democratisation across western Europe in the 1980s, the regulations around fixed-term contracts have been regulated and renewed continually.

Conversely, in the UK, a country with a stronger tradition of fixed-term work, regulatory changes have stagnated, with the most recent in 2002.

A more proactive approach from the UK government could certainly have its benefits, however, with the “red tape sunset” the tacit new year’s resolution for the Conservative government, I wouldn’t be counting your chickens (or tomatoes, for that matter; you wouldn’t get very far).  

Featured Image Credit: Frank Baker

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