In former times, when you were looking for a new career, you would normally have been looking for a long term career. The word career implies a lifetime of work and of progress, and many want a vocation that suits their long term career goals. However, in today’s career market many of us do not have such career security.
A recent revision of official figures showed that nearly 583,000 employees – more than double the government’s original estimate – had to sign up to zero-hours contracts last year. This is three times higher than the figure for 2010, showing a massive rise in employees with diminished legal career rights and even fewer benefits.
Zero-hours contracts allow employers to hire staff without any obligation to guarantee a minimum number of working hours, hence the term ‘zero-hours’. This provides no security or guaranteed wage to employees. People agree to be available for work as and when required, but have no guaranteed hours or times of work. They are used widely in the social care sector, by many retailers and hotels.
In the fourth quarter of 2014, 200,000 workers in the United Kingdom reported that they were on zero-hour contracts. In 2013, such contracts were prevalent in many parts of the UK economy:
- in the hotels and restaurants sector, 19% of all workplaces (up from 4% in 2004)
- in the health sector, 13% (up from 7%)
- in the education sector, 10% (up from 1%)
For domiciliary care workers, the incidence was reported to be as high as 55.7% of all career care workers during the period 2008-14.
Indeed, there have been suggestions that the Office of National Statistics might still be underestimating the figure. Unite, for example, has cited research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) stating that 1 million career workers are on the contracts. This may be because employees themselves do not understand the contracts they are on, and do not disclose that information when questioned. The union states “Unite believes that, in general, zero-hours contracts are unfair, creating insecurity and exploitation for many ordinary people struggling to get by.”
Zero hour contracts do provide
flexibility for some, but these tend to be in groups such as students. When there is a mortgage to pay and child care to organise, these contracts can be restrictive and uncertain. It is however, the way a number of large corporations choose to hire their staff.
The shadow business secretary accused ministers last year of burying their heads in the sand at the extent of the problem after the social care minister said that there were 370,000 zero-hours contracts in the care sector alone. There were concerns that the ONS figures were underestimating the number of zero-hours contracts.
It is feared that some workers were not telling the surveyors about their zero-hours contracts simply because they did not understand what they were. He said in a letter: “It is evident that there are some risks of such estimates being too low due to individuals not describing their working arrangement as being a ‘zero-hours’ contract to the interviewer.”
The Business Secretary said: “These figures provide welcome clarity over the number of people in this type of employment. While zero-hour contracts provide flexibility for some, it is also clear that there has been some abuse. This is why I launched a consultation at the end of last year to help root out abuse – like tackling the problems around exclusivity of contracts with a single employer”.
“While Labour sat on their hands for 13 years and did nothing about it, we’re doing something about it. The government’s consultation closes this Friday and I’d urge union, employers and employees to respond so we can sort this problem out.”
The Secretary pledged to crack down on “exclusivity clauses” that prevent staff on zero-hours contracts working elsewhere. He spoke of how he would act against “abusive practices in zero-hours contracts”.
But Labour believes it has an even tougher approach. They told the TUC last year that they would ban the exploitation of workers on zero-hours contracts by banning employers from insisting employees on the contracts are available even when there is no guarantee of any work, ending “exclusivity clauses” and stopping the use of the contracts when employees are in practice working regular hours.