The latest statistics on the numbers of people on zero-hours contracts show yet another failure by the Conservative government, as the figure tops nearly one million.
On the up
A report released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that in April to June of this year, 903,000 people said their main job was one on a zero-hours contract. This is a staggering 21% rise on the same period in 2015, up from 747,000. People on these contracts now make up just under 3% of the entire UK workforce.
The ONS uses its Labour Force Survey to collect information on zero-hours contracts. It defines them as being:
where a person is not contracted to work a set number of hours, and is only paid for the number of hours that they actually work.
Respondents have to fit certain criteria to be allowed to answer. They have to have been employed (have done at least one hour of paid work in the week before they were interviewed, or have reported that they were temporarily away from their job); report that their working arrangements in their main employment include some form of flexibility; and recognise that the flexibility of their working arrangements is a result of being on a “zero-hours contract”.
While in recent years the increase in the numbers of these contracts has been attributed to an increased awareness of them, the ONS states it is not possible to quantify that influence on this occasion. Furthermore, the detail of the report shows some worrying trends.
Two thirds of people reported being in their job, on a zero-hours contract, for more than a year. These people were mostly women (55%) and people aged 16-24 (36%); this is versus 45% and 12% respectively for all other employment. But 20% of people on zero-hours contracts are in education, compared to 2% in all other employment.
The overwhelming number of these contracts (25%) are found in the hotel and food industries, followed by health and social care work. The figures surrounding the number of hours worked reflects the precarity of both these industries.
As the ONS states in its report:
The majority of people on zero-hours contracts (65%) reported that they worked part-time. This is compared with 26% of other workers. This means that the average actual weekly hours worked in their main job by someone on a zero-hours contract is lower, at 21.1 per week compared with the average actual weekly hours for all workers at 32.5. This shows a similar pattern to usual hours worked, which were 24.7 and 36.6 respectively.
Poverty and precarity
Tellingly, the variances in hours worked were wide. 42% of people on zero-hours contracts worked their “usual hours” compared with 58% of other workers; 37% of people worked less than their usual hours compared with 29% of other workers; and 22% worked more, compared with 13% of those in other employment. But the most worrying figure was that around a third of people on zero-hours contracts wanted a job with more hours. This is compared to just 10% of those in other work.
General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Frances O’Grady said:
Zero-hours contracts have become an easy way for bosses to employ staff on the cheap. There is no getting away from the fact that zero-hours workers earn less money and have fewer rights than people with permanent jobs. It is very easy for politicians and employers to talk about the ‘flexibility’ these contracts offer. But they are not the ones living at the sharp end of the labour market.
In the same week that controversial retailer Sports Direct announced it would offer staff on zero-hours contracts guaranteed hours, the figures from the ONS show the depth of their use in the UK. While the contracts may indeed suit some workers, their use among low-paying employers and the precarity that comes with them are a dangerous trap for many. With 63% of children in poverty coming from working households, and calls for the government to abandon its “national living wage”, the outlook for many UK workers is a bleak, underpaid and unstable one.
– Sign the petition against zero-hours contracts.
– Write to your MP, asking them to investigate their use.
Feature image via US Embassy London/Flickr
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