The zero-hours nightmare is spreading: 800,000 now on zero-hours contracts.
Zero-hour contracts may be a dream for cost-cutting employers. But they are all too often a nightmare for workers. And despite widespread condemnation from politicians, they’re growing, with this year’s official statistics showing a 15% rise. 104,000 more people are now employed on zero hours contracts, bringing the total to 801,000.
If you don’t get guaranteed hours from week to week, it leaves you in limbo, unable to plan for the future. It means workers who don’t know what they’ll be earning will regularly struggle with paying bills, or being able to have a decent and stable family life.
The so-called ‘flexibility’ that zero-hours contracts offer is far too one-sided. It’s why unions focus so strongly on establishing guaranteed hours where they represent staff. But despite some successes and ongoing campaigns the problem is only getting worse.
Staff without guaranteed pay have much less power to stand up for their rights and often feel afraid to turn down shifts in case they fall out of favour with their boss. It often leads to people working fewer hours than they need, as they hold back time in preparation for work that never comes.
Research done by the TUC in Dec 2014 showed that insecure work often goes hand in hand with poverty pay, compounding the problem for workers who are no longer able to make ends meet. Average weekly earnings for zero-hours workers were just £188, compared to £479 for permanent workers. Earning so little has hidden problems too that make people even more vulnerable. For example, 39% of zero-hours workers were earning less than £111 a week – meaning they no longer qualified for statutory sick pay if they needed to take time off – compared to just 8% of permanent employees.
There could be improvements on the horizon. Abuse of insecure contracts isn’t just a UK phenomenon, and the European Union is currently reviewing the right of workers to a written statement of their conditions of employment. That’s enshrined in a directive dating back to 1991 but still very relevant today. It’s not known yet how far they want to go, but consideration is being given to add obligations to state expected hours and/or a minimum number of hours, which would go a long way to protect zero-hours workers from exploitation and uncertainty (This is also another reason we’re worried about the work rights risks of leaving the EU after the referendum – possibly foregoing improved employment protections in the future).
But whether protection comes from the EU or from our own Government, we need to see action soon to tackle this growing unfairness in our economy, and let these 800,000 workers wake up from the zero-hours nightmare.