The problem with zero hours

Photo: End Zero Hours by Nick Efford, Flickr Creative Commons

The number of UK workers on zero-hours contracts has shot up from 747,000 to 903,000, up 21% in the space of a year, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The growth in casualised working arrangements shows no sign of slowing, and we are urging the government to do more to support the increasing number of workers in low-paid, insecure jobs.

Zero-hours workers face, amongst other things:

  • Lower pay – on average, 50% less than payroll employees. At £7.25 per hour, zero-hours workers take home a massive £3.80 less per hour than payroll employees
  • No guaranteed hours.
  • No sick pay.

Underemployment is another feature of the zero-hours gig – staff work 25 hours a week on average, according to the ONS, though around 1 in 3 would jump at the chance to work more.

'Labour on demand'

Is there anything to like about zero-hours contracts? Employers are quick to point out the flexibility that casualised work brings, and that can be a convenient option for some people. Session musicians and supply teachers are often cited as people who choose this kind of working arrangement for example.

But more typically, zero hours workers are treated as ‘labour on demand’ or ‘labour on the cheap’ – kept on standby without pay and expected to show up for work at short notice, often unable to plan their time outside of work.

“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,” says TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. “If you don’t know how much work you will have from one day to the next, paying the bills and arranging things like childcare can be a nightmare.”

Workers and unions have been taking zero hours employers to task, and achieved some notable successes. Last month, Sports Direct pledged to guarantee its shop staff a minimum 12 hours’ work a week. 

Recently, Theresa May made a public commitment to protect and improve workers’ rights. Now we need to see words turned into action. Tougher rules on zero hours would be a start.


You might also like: Zero hours and the changing face of employment (December 2014)


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