The number of UK workers in zero-hours employment has rocketed to reach a staggering 905,000 people, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Data published by the ONS on Wednesday shows the number of people in zero-hours employment has increased by 101,000 over the past year alone, as unions and opposition parties urge the government to get to grips with the controversial contracts.
The unemployment rate fell by 31,000 to 1.58 million in the three months to January 2017, while the number of people in work increased by 92,000 over the same quarter. There are now 315,000 more people in work than a year ago.
But the ONS figures may suggest that the emergence of the so-called “gig economy” could be at least partly behind record high employment levels and falling unemployment, with the number of working people on zero-hours contracts rising from 168,000 in late 2010 to 905,000 by the end of 2016.
However, there are signs that the zero-hours culture among employers is beginning to slow. ONS data shows that 2,000 more people begun a zero-hours job between April-June 2016 and October to December 2016, compared to much more significant rises between 2010 and 2015.
Zero-hours contracts offer no guarantee of hours or the same employment rights enjoyed by other workers, and can leave many wondering how much they will earn from month to month. Although zero-hours contracts offer a degree of flexibility welcomed by some people, for example students, others may be left struggling to make ends-meet and unable to find more suitable employment.
Commenting on the figures, Unite’s leader Len McCluskey said: “For many the fall in unemployment is good news, but scratch the surface and we see a world of work which is becoming increasingly insecure for a growing number of people.
“With record numbers of people on zero hours contracts, the experience of not knowing if you’ve earned enough to pay the bills has become the unacceptable norm for too many families.
“People didn’t vote to the leave the European Union to become the sweatshop of Europe. The UK government must act to tackle bogus self-employment and follow the example of its New Zealand counterparts by outlawing zero hours contracts. If we are to build an economy based on decent, secure jobs then insecure working must end.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Zero-hours contracts allow bosses to treat workers like disposable labour.
“If you’re on a zero-hours contract you have no guarantee of work from one day to another. Put a foot wrong and you can be let go in a heartbeat. Turn down a shift because your kid’s sick and you can be left with little or no work.
“That’s why employment law needs dragging law into the 21st century. Far too many workers do not have the power to challenge bad working conditions.
“Zero-hours contracts can be a nightmare to plan your life around. And are a huge drain on the public finances.
“The growth in zero-hours working over the last decade is costing the government almost £2bn a year.”
Debbie Abrahams MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “We welcome the overall increase in employment, but are deeply concerned that millions remain in low paid, insecure work.
“The Government has also failed to close the employment gap faced by women, disabled people and ethnic minority groups, who are all less likely to be in work.
“Working families face the increasing costs of basic essentials, stagnating wages and the Government slashing social security, leaving families £1,400 a year worse off up to 2020.
“Labour would reverse cuts to in-work support that could see working families lose £2,600 a year, ban the exploitative zero-hours contracts being used on hundreds of thousands of workers, and guarantee a real Living Wage.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “This is a worrying sign that fewer people are finding the long-term, stable jobs they need.
“The Government must give all workers the right to request a fixed-term contract, to prevent people being stuck on zero-hours contracts long-term when they don’t want to be.”
Jonathan Bartley, Green Party co-leader, said: “While we welcome news that the unemployment rate has dropped to such a low level, the reality is more people than ever are employed on precarious zero hours contracts.
“With inflation rising and wage growth stalling, the high employment rate masks the insecurity faced by British families.
“Zero hours contracts are part of a gig economy that facilitates the exploitation of workers and companies are failing to fulfil their moral and legal duty to give their workers secure employment and basic rights.
“In this age of insecurity we should be thinking big about how we build an economy that works for everyone.
“That’s why the Government should follow the lead of countries like Finland which are investigating the merits of introducing a basic income, to stop people falling into poverty, while providing the choice, security and stability they need.”