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Some 'casual work' has always played a legitimate role in the UK economy. It is useful, for example, for students looking to earn extra money, or to workers looking to supplement their household income without the commitment of regular hours. Casual working patterns have always suited employers, by providing short-term cover for holidays or sickness, or responding to short-term fluctuation in demand, such as the run up to Christmas in the retail trade, or seasonal work in agriculture.
But since the economic downturn, there is growing evidence that this kind of irregular working pattern has become the 'norm' for many workers. These contracts are now common especially in retail, restaurants, hospitality and the care industry. A study by the Fairness at Work Research Centre found that nearly seven in every ten companies providing care in peoples' homes offer only zero hours contracts to their staff. Their use is also spreading in the public sector, especially the health service.
Statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of workers on zero hours contracts as their main job increased to over 900,000 during 2016. The true figure is likely to be even higher, because many people are unsure of their contract terms.
On average, zero hours contract workers work around 25 hours a week, according to the ONS. At least three in ten would rather work more hours.
A key attraction for bad employers is that it allows them to cut their wage bill and avoid employment responsibilities. TUC analysis shows that the average worker earns 50% more an hour than someone on a zero-hour contract.
The TUC wants the government to end the abuse of zero hours contracts and to provide more support for these workers.
As an individual worker on a zero hours contract, it can be very difficult to improve your position. The employer holds all the cards. As TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady says,
"Zero-hours contracts sum up what has gone wrong in the modern workplace. They shift almost all power from the worker and give it to their boss. Anyone on such a contract has no guarantee of any work from one day to another. Put a foot wrong, and you can find yourself with little or no work".
The best way to improve your position if you are on a zero hours contract is to join a union and to encourage your colleagues to do the same. Once enough workers have joined the union, it will be able to apply to your employer for recognition, which gives the right to collectively bargain (i.e. negotiate) wages and other terms and conditions on your behalf. The more people that join, the stronger the union's voice will be. Browse our Union Finder tool for advice on the most suitable union for you.