The government on Tuesday (August 14) hailed the latest labour market figures as it highlighted the fall in unemployment and the first significant drop in zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) in several years.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that unemployment fell by 65,000 to 1.36m in the three months to June, while the number of people employed on contracts guaranteeing no hours fell by 100,000 from February. The total number of people now working on zero-hours contracts stands at nearly 800,000.
An analysis from the TUC shows that the significant drop in ZHCs – while welcome – is hiding certain inconvenient truths about the contracts that afford workers no sick or holiday pay and little security.
Significantly more than half of the 780,000 people who remain on ZHCs – 66 per cent – have been on these contracts for more than one year. And while the government has argued that people choose to take on zero hours contracts because they enjoy the flexibility, TUC polling indicates otherwise.
A survey conducted last year found that two-thirds of people on zero-hours contracts would prefer a contract with guaranteed hours, while only one in four preferred the zero hours contract.
Besides having few rights and protections such as holiday and sick pay, young zero hours workers are much more likely to be subject to workplace bullying and abuse, and also tend to be in poorer mental and physical health.
Young people working in hospitality have reported being sexually harassed and have subsequently felt powerless to raise the issue because they feared their hours could be reduced.
One waitress working at a pub chain told the Guardian that after being harassed by customers several times, she felt a “low-level fear that making too much fuss would reduce my hours when I was already struggling to support myself”.
Another woman working in care on a zero-hours contract was being sexually harassed by a co-worker. She too, felt as though she couldn’t report the incident because of her employment contract.
“The guy had been working there longer than me and I felt that if I had reported it, I would be at risk of not receiving any more shifts,” she said.
While the drop in zero hours contracts is certainly a development to be celebrated, TUC policy officer Anjum Klair said that “ZHCs are only one part of the problem of insecure work in the UK.”
“From bogus self-employment to underpaid agency workers, our research shows that 1 in 9 workers – at least 3.8 million – are now trapped in some form of insecure work,” she noted.
“Today’s figures are a reminder that this problem is not going away, even if it is good news that the numbers have started to go down at last,” Klair added. “That’s why we need a new deal for working people so that every worker has the right to a contract that guarantees the hours they work.
“If ministers are serious about building a country that works for everyone, they must act now to ensure every worker gets fair pay, decent rights and a voice at work.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner agreed.
“Don’t let this government fool you – the world of insecure work is still very much here to stay under the auspices of the Tories,” he said. “The welcome drop in zero-hours contracts shows that people may have had enough of these exploitative work arrangements but the fact that 780,000 still remain on ZHCs is worrying.
“Speaking with members, we know that in some sectors such as hospitality, zero-hours contracts are the model of choice among employers – they dominate the industry, so workers, many of them young, inexperienced and vulnerable to abuse, have little choice but to accept them,” he added.
“It’s time to make work pay and give people the job security they need to get on in life by following the lead of New Zealand and banning zero-hours contracts.”