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UK – Zero-hour worker numbers underestimated

02 August 2013

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) underestimated the number of British workers employed on ‘zero-hour’ contracts and has revised its figures upwards by +25%, from 200,000 to 250,000. Zero-hour contracts give employees no guaranteed hours of employment and they are only paid for the number of hours that they actually work. As a result, these employees have no guaranteed income, no holiday entitlement, and cannot work elsewhere without permission from their zero-hour contract employer.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Union Confederation (TUC), said to the Independent: “These updated figures from the ONS still underestimate the true scale of zero hours working, which has spread like wildfire throughout our economy. 300,000 workers in the care sector alone are employed on these insecure terms and conditions, [and] that is before you factor in sectors like higher education, retail, legal services, and journalism.”

In recent weeks there have been high profile cases of companies using zero-hour contracts. Buckingham Palace is reported to employ approximately 350 temporary workers for the summer season on zero-hour contracts. This has been disputed by the Palace, which claims that as employees are notified of their working hours in advance, receive free lunches, and accrue holiday entitlement, the contracts cannot be considered zero-hour, according to a report in the Daily Mail.    

Sporting retailer, Sports Direct, has also come under for hiring up to 90% of their current work force on zero-hour contracts. It is estimated by the Guardian that the zero-hour contract workers for Sports Direct account for as much as 10% of the total number of such contracts across the UK.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has voiced concern over the use of these contracts, saying: “Since 2005 there has been a rise in the use of zero-hour contracts. There has been anecdotal evidence of abuse by certain employers – including in the public sector – of some vulnerable workers at the margins of the labour market. While it’s important our workforce remains flexible, it is equally important that it is treated fairly.”

Commenting in Parliament, Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith concurred: “Some 200,000 people are employed on zero-hour contracts, which is just less than 1% of all workers… Personally I think there should be far fewer zero-hour contracts. We are trying to work with employers and the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills to persuade those who have a genuine long-term job to get off zero-hours contracts and get a proper contract of work.” 

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