Another week has passed but zero hours contracts are still a hot topic of conversation. Keeping the subject in the spotlight, the Office for National Statistics has published the results of its latest survey which suggests that there are around 1.4 million zero hours contracts being used in the UK workforce. This is substantially different from the 583,000 workers or 2% of the workforce who said they were engaged on zero hours contracts in a survey by the Labour Force Survey (LFS) at the start the year.
There could be a number of reasons why this figure is so different. One possibility is that there has been a worrying increase in the number of these contracts over a very short period of time. This would be a cause for concern as it would suggest the corresponding drop in unemployment figures for recent months is, in fact, skewed, and many workers are still, in effect, in unstable working positions rather than genuinely back in the employment market.
Alternatively, the figures may reflect the fact that workers are not necessarily familiar with the terminology of different types of contracts, whereas employers are better placed to understand the formal arrangements. If so, arguably, the ONS figures may be more accurate as this is the first survey of businesses to address this question, rather than surveys of workers.
Another suggestion that has been put forward is that many workers may actually be engaged on more than one zero hours contract. If that is the case, it may suggest that, at least for some people, exclusivity is not a problem. If they are managing to combine more than one of these contracts and not run the risk of being “blacklisted” for being unavailable for work from time to time, that could suggest the flexibility of these contacts does actually work. On the other hand, and more worryingly, it may well be that the fact workers need more than one of these contracts indicates just how precarious life can be for workers in these arrangements, so that numerous contracts are required, in the hope of maintaining a minimum standard of living.
Another issue arising from the latest statistics is the demographic of who is actually engaged on this type of contract. Young people, students, women, carers and over 65s are proportionately more likely to be engaged on a zero hours contract. Does this mean that the more vulnerable groups in society are being forced to take uncertain and variable arrangements, simply to try and make ends meet? Or that those workers who are actively seeking flexible arrangements, to fit around lectures or childcare, or to provide a few hours’ work per week to top up a pension, are deliberately choosing to take these contracts?
It certainly seems that the latest statistics have thrown up more questions than answers. In our view, we need to know the answers to these questions before solutions can be put in place to solve the problems or we run the risk of solving problems that were not, in fact, problems in the first place. We will keep you updated with developments.
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