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UK – Zero-hours contract numbers are double previous government estimates

10 March 2014

The scale of the use of zero-hours contracts has been revealed after a revision of official figures showed that nearly 583,000 employees, more than double the government's previous estimate, signed up to the controversial conditions last year, reports the Guardian.

A "rising tide of insecurity" in the job market since the last election was allowing employers to turn a "once marginal and niche element of the labour market" into the norm, Labour claimed on Sunday evening.

Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, attacked the government after the revised figures released by the Office for National Statistics revealed the true number of workers employed on zero-hours contracts in 2013.

The big increase in the figures, which is three times higher than the number given for the year the coalition was formed in 2010, follows a change in the way that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) assesses zero-hours contracts.

Andrew Dilnot, the ONS regulator, instructed the official body last August to follow a request from Mr Umunna to include research from outside bodies in addition to the usual Labour Force Survey (LFS). Mr Dilnot expressed fears that employees were not registering their zero-hour contracts with LFS surveyors because they were "unfamiliar" with the term.

Business Minister, Jo Swinson, advised Mr Umunna in a written parliamentary answer that there were 250,000 people on zero-hours contracts in 2012; two months after Mr Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote a public letter to the shadow business secretary outlining his concerns.

Mr Umunna said on Sunday: "Under David Cameron we have seen employment becoming less secure at a time when families are facing a cost-of-living crisis.”

"These new figures from the ONS, following my request to Sir Andrew Dilnot last summer, confirm that there has been a huge rise in the numbers of people on zero-hours contracts since 2010. What were once a marginal and niche element of the labour market have fast become the norm in some areas and sectors under this government. Labour would tighten up the rules to outlaw zero-hours contracts where they exploit people and turn around the rising tide of insecurity we've seen under the Tory-led government."

Zero-hours contracts allow employers to hire staff without any obligation to guarantee a minimum number of working hours. They are used widely in the social care sector, by hotels and many retailers.

There is suggestion, however, that the ONS might still be underestimating the figure. Britain's largest trade union, Unite, has cited research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) which has said that one million workers are on the contracts. Mr Dilnot instructed the ONS to examine the CIPD work in its new assessment.

The union said: "Unite believes that, in general, zero-hours contracts are unfair, creating insecurity and exploitation for many ordinary people struggling to get by."

The shadow business secretary accused ministers last year of burying their heads in the sand at the extent of the problem after the social care minister, Norman Lamb, said that there were 370,000 zero-hours contracts in the care sector alone. Mr Umunna was told by Mr Dilnot last August that he had concerns that the ONS figures, based on the LFS, were underestimating the number of zero-hours contracts.

Mr Dilnot also told Mr Umunna in August that he feared that some workers were not telling the surveyors about their zero-hours contracts simply because they did not understand what they were. He said in a letter: "It is evident that there are some risks of such estimates being too low due to individuals not describing their working arrangement as being a 'zero-hours' contract to the interviewer."

Business secretary, Vince Cable, said on Sunday evening: "These figures provide welcome clarity over the number of people on this type of employment.”

"While zero-hour contracts provide flexibility for some, it is also clear that there has been some abuse. This is why I launched a consultation at the end of last year to help root out abuse – like tackling the problems around exclusivity of contracts with a single employer.”

"While Labour sat on their hands for 13 years and did nothing about it, we're doing something about it. The government's consultation closes this Friday and I'd urge union, employers and employees to respond so we can sort this problem out," Mr Cable added. 

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