Use of zero-hours contracts up 21 per cent in a year



ONS figures show 903,000 work on zero hours in their main job, and many have been with the same employer for more than a year

The number of people employed on zero-hours contracts rose by 21 per cent year-on year, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that may demonstrate an increasing reliance on more casual forms of employment in the wake of recent economic volatility.

The data, drawn from the 2016 Labour Force Survey and covering April-July 2016, places the number of people with a zero-hours contract as their main job at 903,000 – representing 2.9 per cent of all those in employment.

The rate of increase in the use of such contracts was up on the previous year. In total, an extra 159,000 people were employed on zero hours in the last 12 months, compared to an increase of 120,000 in the 12 months to September 2015.

The ONS said the increasing use of zero hours could be partly attributed to an increased recognition and awareness of what such contracts entail. It said the flexibility offered by zero-hours contracts can make them an attractive prospect for both employers and employees who are looking for work without the obligation of a permanent contract.

“If zero-hours contracts are used correctly, they can be a legitimate thing for both employer and employee,” said Philip Richardson, an employment lawyer at Stephensons LLP. “For seasonal workers, for example, a zero-hours contract can stop them being tied to one employer, and allow them to take up jobs on a temporary basis with no obligation. Equally, there’s no obligation on the employer, so, for a lot of businesses, that means they aren’t necessarily committing themselves in terms of cost.”

The report revealed that two-thirds of the increase (66 per cent) in zero-hour contracts was down to people who had been in their role for more than a year. This could be because of heightened awareness, but another possibility is that workers had been moved from fixed contracts on to zero-hours by their employer, which could be related to a slowing of permanent hiring in the immediate wake of the EU referendum.

“The statistic is slightly concerning, because the idea of a zero-hours contract is that there is no obligation to give or accept work, so if employers don’t use it in a legitimate way their staff could be at risk,” Richardson said.

“Employees can be left vulnerable – if they are being given consistent work over time they have a sense of permanency, but with nothing being done by the employer to commit to that permanency. If they are getting regular work and hours, regardless of the contract they are engaged under, these workers become like any other employee and should have the additional rights of an employee under a fixed-term contract.”

The use of zero-hours contracts has been consistently controversial, and this week Sports Direct pledged to offer all staff employed on them a minimum guarantee of 12 hours’ work per week.

However, the CIPD and others have reported that, in general, people employed on zero-hours contracts are as happy as other staff and, if deployed responsibly, they can be a useful way to accommodate flexible working patterns.

The ONS report said that around a third of people on zero-hours contracts wanted to work more hours, compared with 10 per cent of those employed on another kind of contract.

The findings come in the wake of the latest Recruitment and Employment Confederation Report on Jobs, which showed a rebound in the jobs market in August, with a broad growth in demand across all categories of temporary and permanent staff. Most significantly, the number of permanent hires was found to have risen for the first time in three months.

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