New figures have shown that 582,935 workers were on zero-hours contracts in 2013 — more than double the government’s own estimate.
The upward revision comes after a change in how the Office for National Statistics (ONS) calculates its figures, as it emerged that many employers were not reporting the use of the contracts.
Zero-hours contracts guarantee workers no minimum hours or benefits, effectively placing them “on call” when their employer needs them.
Often thought to be a marginal element of the labour market restricted to hotels, catering and similar sectors, zero-hours contracts are in fact more likely to be found in the voluntary and public sectors. A report in September 2013 from the University and College Union (UCU) found that 53% of UK universities use them, with just under half employing more than 200 staff on the contracts.
The spread of zero-hours contracts is a symptom of greater casualisation and the erosion of workers’ rights. Despite the much-vaunted “flexibility” for workers, the reality is that this usually only cuts one way.
Many bosses expect the same level of commitment to the company from staff on zero-hours contracts as they do from more permanent staff, but with none of the benefits of stability, pensions and other rights.
Workers live in fear that work will be withheld, or that they will be told that they are no longer needed. Some contracts even contain “exclusivity clauses” which forbid workers from working for other employers because they must make themselves available at all times.
The labour movement should demand that zero-hours contracts be banned and put pressure on Labour to increase workers’ rights more generally.