The number of people on zero-hours contracts has reached record levels, with 905,000 people on them in the last three months of 2016, up 13 per cent from the same period last year.
But the total number of zero-hours contracts – as often one person takes on multiple zero hours contracts – has stalled at 1.7m, unchanged from a year ago, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
The Resolution Foundation think tank has said that the stall may be down to the bad press coverage of zero-hours contracts, with more people rejecting the work arrangement. The rise in employment rate could also be a reason, as employers struggle to attract workers willing to take on jobs without guaranteed hours.
But even though the total number of zero-hours contracts has stalled, it is not the only type of work where people struggle to make ends meet and don’t know whether they’ll be working from one day to the next.
Shock figures from the TUC published last month show that in five years, 3.5m people will be in one form of insecure work or another, such as on a zero-hours contract, short-hours contract, in temp or agency work, or in low-paid self-employment.
“While it’s good that some companies are moving away from using them, there are a staggering 1.7m zero-hours contracts still in use,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
“Let’s not pretend that life at the sharp end of the labour market is getting easier,” she noted. “There is growing evidence of firms employing staff on short-hours contracts to avoid the bad PR associated with zero-hours jobs. These contracts guarantee as little as one hour a week and, like zero-hours contracts, leave workers at the beck and call of their bosses.”
The latest figures on zero-hours contracts show that on average, those on the contracts work about 25 hours a week, with a third of them wanting to work more hours. People on zero hours contracts also earn on average only £7.25 an hour, compared to employees who earn on average £11 an hour.
And it’s young women working part-time who are most likely to be on the contracts, prompting a the Young Women’s Trust charity to slam zero hours contracts as “exploitative”.
Struggling to make ends meet
“Zero-hours contracts and low pay are leaving young people struggling to make ends meet,” said the Trust’s chief executive Dr Carole Easton OBE. “Budgeting, paying your bills and planning ahead can be impossible when you don’t know how much money you will have coming in each month.
“Zero-hours contracts, many of which exploit young women, are used far too often,” she added. “Young Women’s Trust research shows that one in three young women has been offered a contract with no guaranteed hours. 30 per cent in work are worried about not having enough paid hours.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner agreed that zero-hours contracts was only the tip of the iceberg in the growing scourge of insecure work.
“From exploitative zero and short-hours contracts to bogus self-employment, the world of work has become increasingly insecure as bad bosses seek out ever more creative ways of exploiting workers to boost profits and dodge their responsibilities,” he said.
“With a shocking 3.8m people experiencing in-work poverty, it’s high time that work in this country paid and the misery of insecure work was eradicated.”
Insecure work arrangements, Unite argues, are not inevitable – New Zealand, after all, banned zero hours contracts last year.
Unite advocates adopting a similar model to New Zealand’s policy, in which workers must be offered the average number of hours they work each week. Workers are also paid for the hours they are expected to be available and for last minute cancelled shifts. This, too, tackles the problem of short-hours contracts.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has called for an end to insecure work, especially amid the economic uncertainty Brexit has unleashed.
“People didn’t vote to the leave the European Union to become the sweatshop of Europe,” he said. “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.”
McCluskey yesterday (May 11) welcomed Labour’s commitment to banning zero-hours contracts – one of many policies he called “really exciting” and ones that “ordinary Labour voters want to see”.