Over 800,000 UK workers are on zero-hours contracts

Is it merely a sign of people's desire for flexibility or a 'nightmare for workers' as the TUC claims?

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2016

The proportion of the UK workforce on zero-hours contracts is on the rise. According to the ONS, 801,000 people said they were on them between October and December of last year. That’s 15% up from the same period in 2014. So 2.5% of the workforce is now on contracts which don’t guarantee a minimum number of hours.

The numbers could be skewed by the fact that zero-hours contracts have rocketed up the political agenda (it was a contentious sticking point ahead of last year’s general election), which in turn means the public will be more likely to recognise the term. But as the ONS said, there's certainly ‘nothing to suggest this form of employment is in decline’.

And it’s not likely to be unless the government takes action. There are plenty of concerns over bad practice, but equally, some workers and of course companies (from JD Wetherspoon to Cineworld to Sports Direct), do actually seem to like forms of these contracts. A blanket ban would likely be a blunt fix and make the market less flexible.

Equally, it’s clear the way many zero-hours contracts are operated needs better regulation – the way firms implement zero-hours contracts can vary widely. That needs to be clamped down on. 

It’s difficult to ascertain just how many of those on zero-hours value their flexibility so much that it’s a choice, rather than a necessity because they can’t find more stable employment. Those on zero-hours contracts tend to be women, young people and part-time workers. While some might find the flexibility appealing, the ONS suggested zero-hours workers are more dissatisfied than other employees. A third wanted to work longer hours compared to 10% of people in other types of employment. 

There’s also the wider question over the changing nature of employment. In a recent interview with MT, management guru Charles Handy said he feels ‘we’re moving to a gig economy, where most people will be self-employed and bid for jobs like an electrician does’. A new survey from Unify of 9,000 ‘knowledge workers’ found a fifth currently operate as freelancers and over half would consider changing to this over regular employment, if it was offered.

So this may be a signal of that gradual change and also that some companies aren’t adapting to provide enough flexibility in conventional jobs for their workers' liking. Either way, it’s clear flexibility will be high on the agenda for the future of work. But as this happens, regulations will need to adapt to ensure workers are adequately protected and people actually have a better chance at working the hours they want.

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