TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has attacked Santander’s use of “one-hour contracts” – job arrangements in which each employee is entitled to just one hour of work per month, or 12 hours per year. In O’Grady’s view, these are merely “zero-hours contracts by another name – [they] allow bosses to treat workers like disposable labour. If you’re on one, you have no guarantee of work from one day to another”.

However, not every leader in the union sphere feels the same way. Advance Trade Union general secretary Linda Rolph, for example, has provided a more positive take, saying: “These arrangements are ideal for students and … [for] maternity leavers wanting to continue to use their experience, but without committing to regular fixed hours.”

So, is Santander’s brainwave a contemptuous sideswipe at workers, or a genuinely helpful innovation? And how could it influence employee engagement?

“These types of contracts can work effectively if they’re seen as mutually beneficial to both sides, and not completely weighted towards the employer,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper.

“There’s something about a contract that says, ‘You’re part of us, you’re one of us – you reflect the sorts of standards that we look for in our employees’. If there could be a minimum level of payment that went alongside the contract – so if the employer didn’t call on you to work for a while, there would still be a recognition that you’re making yourself available – then that would be an honourable gesture.”

In any case, though, Cooper adds, “they will certainly work for some people – such as those who are keen on flexible working, or having more scope to take holidays or times out when it suits them. There’s a point to make here about negotiation: if you’re using this type of contract to gather a pool of labour to exploit – in the vein of those days when people used to queue up for work at the docks, or, as I understand it, how it can work even now with some language schools, where people turn up to see if they can do any teaching – then that’s absolutely immoral.

“However, if it’s a way of working with someone – and mutually recognising that there are peaks and troughs in demand for work – then it’s a matter of reaching an ethical agreement with that employee about what makes sense for all concerned.”

For further thoughts on HR matters, check out the Institute’s dedicated resources

Image of Santander-branded bikes courtesy of John Gomez, via Shutterstock