Nearly 700,000 workers in Britain are on ‘exploitative’ zero-hours contracts, new figures show.
New Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 697,000 workers were on zero-hours contracts in October to December 2014, up 111,000 on the same period the previous year.
The figure represents 2.3% of everyone in work and is subject to people recognising the nature of their employment contract and understanding the term ‘zero-hours contract’.
People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young and older age groups. On average, they work under 25 hours a week and earn £300 less than workers on more permanent contracts.
Around a third of people on these contracts would like to work more hours, but would prefer to complete those hours in their current job.
The ONS estimates that around 1.8 million contracts do not guarantee a minimum number of hours, where work was carried out in the fortnight beginning 11 August 2014. Some people have more than one zero-hours job.
A poll by ITV suggests that large numbers of the general public believe zero-hours contracts ‘leave employees out of pocket and without security’.
Labour accused the Tories of failing working people, adding they would ban “exploitative zero-hours contract” if they win the general election in May.
Chuka Umunna MP, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, commenting on new ONS statistics on the number of zero-hours contracts, said:
“The Tories’ plan is failing working families. While they prioritise a few at the top, for others there’s a rising tide of insecurity. Ministers have watered down every person’s rights at work and zero-hours contracts have gone from being a niche concept to becoming the norm in parts of our economy.
“The ONS’ findings today that there are now 1.8 million zero hours contracts and that the number of people reporting they are on a zero-hours contract for their main job has risen by almost 20 per cent is yet another stark illustration of a recovery which is not working for working people.
“Labour’s Better Plan for Britain’s Prosperity would ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, prohibit employers from requiring workers to be available on the off chance they are needed, ensure zero-hours contract workers who have shifts cancelled at short notice receive compensation and give employees who consistently work regular hours the right to a fixed-hours contract.
“Ministers have sat on their hands and opposed our plans, in the face of rising insecurity for people. Only Labour will deliver a recovery that works for all, restoring security and dignity at work.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable defended the use of zero-hours contracts, arguing they are “valued by many employers and individuals who want flexibility in the hours they work”.
“However, historically there has also been some abuse in these types of contracts”, he said.
“That is why I am taking legislation through Parliament at the moment to ban exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts which prevent people looking for additional work to boost their income.
“We want to make sure that people who are on zero-hours contracts get a fair deal.”
Unions have lined up to express their concerns on the latest ONS zero-hours contracts statistics.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said they were a sign of “what has gone wrong in the modern workplace”.
She added: “They shift almost all power from the worker and give it to their boss. Anyone on such a contract has no guarantee of any work from one day to another. Put a foot wrong, and you can find yourself with little or no work.
“Employers often argue that they offer flexibility, but trying telling that to zero-hours workers who can’t get a mortgage or pay their rent.
“In many sectors, especially social care, zero-hours contracts are used to drive down costs regardless of the impact on services and the workforce.”
Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey said: “These figures make an utter mockery of the government’s claim to have inspired a ‘jobs miracle’.
“Ever increasing numbers of people are being forced into a hand to mouth existence with no guarantee of work, not knowing from one week to the next whether they will be able to pay the bills.
“What the ONS figures do not reveal is that we also have record levels of self-employment in this country. Combined with this, the increase in zero hours jobs exposes a labour market where insecure work is becoming an employment model of choice.
“The prevalence of zero hours work in bigger employers indicates that this rise is not so much about employers trying to weather the downturn, but more about businesses enjoying the freedom this form of employment affords them from the fundamental rights and decent wages that ought to accompany responsible employment.
“An economy based on low paid insecure work shuts people out of the economy – you cannot hope for a home or save for the future when you don’t know if you will have a wage, let alone what it will be. Such employment will not deliver the sustainable recovery our nation desperately needs.
“We need urgent, meaningful action to rebalance our economy. A ban on zero hours contracts and the return of collective bargaining must be the basic first steps to put a floor under the ever-falling living standards for millions in this country.”
Zero-hours contracts encroaching upon the health and social care system is “bad news” for elderly and disabled people, warns Unison.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Zero-hours contracts became more popular during the recession when employers sought to keep a lid on their costs and people were so desperate they’d take any work they could get.
“But rather than see a decline in the use of these casual contracts as the economy improved, today’s figures show zero-hours are booming.
“In fact this way of working has now become standard practice in the social care sector. This is bad news for social care workers and the elderly and disabled people they care for.
“They are now more likely to be cared for by a procession of strangers because the advent of zero-hours means their carers no longer have regular schedules.
“There’s no doubt that zero-hours suit a small number of workers but for most this way of working is far from ideal.
“These Victorian-style contracts put all the power with the employer, leaving individuals with no idea how many hours or how much money they’re getting from one week to the next. This plays havoc with family budgets and makes paying bills and applying for loans, mortgages and tenancy agreements nigh on impossible.
“Spending cuts have admittedly made life tough for public sector employers, but they should be leading by example – not ducking their commissioning responsibilities.
“Any local authority or NHS trust paying for services from local employers should be making sure that none of the successful bidders are exploiting zero-hours workers.”