The number of people on zero-hours contracts, in which workers are not guaranteed any hours of work, is notoriously difficult to calculate.
While the scale of the zero-hours epidemic is not yet fully known, one thing is certain – these casual contracts are quickly becoming the norm in our modern world of work.
Office of National Statistics figures released in February show that the number of zero-hours contracts has risen substantially over the past year, from 1.4m contracts in 2013 to 1.8m contracts last year.
While the actual number of people on contracts guaranteeing no minimum hours is thought to be about 700,000, this figure obscures the fact that many workers are on casual contracts guaranteeing one or two hours a week – an arrangement that’s essentially a zero-hours contract by another name.
The Tory government has claimed that zero-hours contracts afford workers flexibility.
But for Jen, a carer who has worked on such contracts for years, ‘flexibility’ is only a one way street in favour of the employer.
Weeks after starting her first zero-hours contract in 2013, Jen began experiencing health problems. Now they’ve become so severe that she is too ill to work.
“Within weeks of starting my first ever zero contract job I had started sleeping badly, waking in the night, jumping out of bed in a panic shouting in the night,” she explained.
“One night I had a vivid dream that I had been called. When I tried to leave the house, my husband tried to stop me, but I didn’t even recognise him.”
Under zero-hours contracts, workers must go about their day as if life beyond work ceases to exist altogether.
One day, Jen was no more than five minutes into her 12 hour shift when she found out that her stepfather had suddenly died. To her employers, the devastating news did not matter – she had to complete her shift.
“I couldn’t walk out as the client depended on two carers at all times,” she said. “In the end I arranged my own cover but I was not in a fit state to work.”
Afterwards, she had taken two weeks off, without claiming holiday pay, to finalise her stepfather’s funeral arrangements and take some time to grieve.
“But then they took shifts away for a further two weeks, forcing me to use my holiday pay just to be able to pay my bills,” Jen explained.
Now unable to work, her anxiety has become so severe that she often vomits when she hears the phone ring.
Just a number
“It’s a horrible environment – you’re just a number. The employer doesn’t care about you, and if you don’t do what they want, they simply replace you.”
Jen warned those who may be enticed by some of the terms in zero-hours contracts.
“I think everyone needs to be aware that some [contracts] may make the pay look attractive – I’ve been on nearly £10 per hour and double on bank holidays and up to treble when they’re short on staff – but if you’re unavoidably ill, if you have a family and can’t drop everything and arrange your life around their shifts, then you will find yourself without work,” she explained.
“In care work, if one of your clients dies, you can be without work for weeks and sometimes more. Agency workers are always replaceable and they make that clear.”
Jen’s experience isn’t an anomaly.
According to a TUC survey and report, workers on casual contracts are at much higher risk of being exploited. Many people reported losing out on holiday pay because they were too afraid to ask their employer for time off, being refused work because they were pregnant or returning from maternity leave, or not being paid on time or in full.
Unite has actively fought the rise of zero-hours contracts and other insecure work arrangements, most recently in its Fight for Five campaign, in which the union has identified five things that constitute decent work:
- A wage you can live on
- Safe, secure work
- Guaranteed hours each week
- Training, development and career opportunities
- A collective voice and union representation
Pledge your support for #Fightfor5 – find out more here.