Hundreds of thousands of young workers are on zero-hours contracts – and cannot feed their families!

Domestic workers marching on May Day demanding proper job contracts
Domestic workers marching on May Day demanding proper job contracts

ZERO-HOUR contracts have risen sharply in recent years, hundreds of thousands of zero-hour contract workers, the majority being young, are on minimum wage whilst simultaneously not given enough hours per week to ensure their families are financially secure, a new report highlighted.

The Report was published on Tuesday by the Resolution Foundation and is entitled: ‘A Matter of Time: The Rise of Zero-Hour Contracts.’

The report states: ‘A zero-hours contract is a type of employment contract under which an employer is not required to offer an employee any defined number of working hours and the employee is, in turn, neither guaranteed any set number of working hours nor obliged to take any offered.

‘The individual therefore only receives pay for the working hours for which they are required; hours which may be subject to variation on a daily or weekly basis.’

The report cites anecdotal evidence of workers experiences of zero-hour contracts:

A female day services support worker from Kendal said: ‘After 8 months working as a day services support worker I became seriously ill and informed my employer that I would need to be in hospital for about six weeks to undergo surgery and to recover.

‘The day after, and I have no doubt the two are linked, several of the girls and I were brought in and told that the company had to make a few “little tweaks” to our contracts.

‘I made some calls and sought advice as I assumed they couldn’t do this to us but the next week my line-manager told me I either signed the new contract or I could leave the company. I was told that if I signed they wanted to also know they’d have no negative attitude from me. I felt that I had no choice as my husband was out of work at the time and I’ve been on zero-hours since’.

She added: ‘It’s not the uncertainty that bothers me. I have a relatively constant number of working hours but these contracts only work one way anyway – they don’t offer any flexibility to those who’d want it. All the girls are on the same hours as they were when they were on permanent ones.

‘One girl who told her line-manager, with a week’s notice, that she didn’t want to work one week day had her hours reduced and her card was marked from that point on. I have no faith or commitment to the company since they put us all on zero-hours.

‘All the girls who had their contracts changed feel the same. And it definitely has an impact on the care we provide. We look after lots of patients with dementia and we’re supposed to be “up” and positive for them each day but now everyone is worried and looking for other jobs and that rubs off on patients. More and more people are leaving now and new people come and go often’.

A Female FE lecturer from Bradford said: ‘Many of my colleagues who are raising families have got into serious debt from working on zero-hours contract because they cannot be sure what they’ll get in each month.

‘Those who’ve avoided debt have done so by living with parents, drawing on savings, having redundancy pay from previous jobs to fall back on or because mortgage costs are currently low. The housing round here is cheap but lots of people on these contracts wouldn’t be able to survive without family support’.

A Female domiciliary care worker from Stockton said: ‘It’s really hard to plan. I’ve clung onto this job for all the downsides because of my mortgage and I usually work enough hours to cover that but I’ve had to cut out any luxuries because I can’t guarantee what I’ll get in each month’.

A Female domiciliary care worker from Edinburgh said: ‘It’s really disruptive as you basically have to take what hours you’re given. So on any typical week I might have a Friday off when I’d rather be working but then have to make up my hours by working on a Sunday when I want to spend time with the kids’.

A female domiciliary care worker from Newcastle said: ‘When I started out at my current job I did nine weeks without a single day off and I was regularly working anything up to 55-60 hours a week.

‘Since putting my foot down and refusing to work every other weekend – I still do 12 days on with 2 off – my hours have dried up and I still argue with my manager over pay for the hours I have actually worked’.

In its Executive Summary tha report states: ‘The use of zero-hours contracts has risen sharply in recent years. According to the Office for National Statistics the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts rose from 134,000 in 2006 (0.5 per cent of the workforce) to 208,000 (0.7 per cent) in 2012.

‘While the clear upward trend is not in dispute there are reasons to believe that these headline figures are a substantial under-estimate of the true scale of the use of zero-hours contracts across the UK.

‘We know, for example, that around 150,000 domiciliary care-workers alone are employed on zero-hours contracts. The true scale of zero-hours contract use is likely to be far higher than official estimates suggest.’

The report adds: ‘Beyond the upward trend in zero-hours contract use our research suggests that:

• Those employed on zero-hours contracts receive lower gross-weekly pay (an average of £236 per week) than those who are not (an average of £482 per week).

• Workplaces that utilise zero-hours contracts have a higher proportion of staff on low pay (between the National Minimum Wage (NMW) of £6.19 per hour and £7.50 per hour) than those who do not.

• Those employed on zero-hours contracts work fewer hours on average (21 hours per week) than those who are not (31 hours per work).

• The growing use of such contracts may therefore be a contributory factor in rising rates of under-employment since 2008.

• Those on zero-hours contracts are also less likely to prefer this situation: 18 per cent of those on zero-hours contracts are actively seeking alternative employment or additional hours compared to 7 per cent of those who are not.

• The prevalence of zero-hours contracts is higher among young people than other age groups, with 37 per cent of those employed on such contracts aged between 16 and 24.

• The employment of non-UK nationals is higher among workplaces utilising zero-hours contracts (48 per cent) than those who do not (25 per cent).

• 8 per cent of workplaces across a wide range of sectors now use zero-hours contracts.

The report adds: ‘It is not hard to see why zero-hours contracts can appear attractive to employers. They allow for maximum flexibility to meet changing demand.

‘They can facilitate the management of risk, reduce the costs of recruitment and training, and they can, in certain circumstances, enable employers to avoid particular employment obligations. Yet it is clear that the benefits these contracts provide for employers come at too high a price for the majority of those employed on them.

‘For many, the ostensible freedom and choice these contracts offer is more apparent than real. This is particularly the case in workplaces where power imbalances are acute.

‘For those individuals who require a minimum number of working hours per week to ensure their family is financially secure or who fear that turning down hours will result in future work being withdrawn (what is known as being “zeroed-down”), life on a zero-hours contract can be extremely difficult.

‘For many, a zero-hours contract means a working life permanently “on-call,” uncertain as to whether a sufficient number of hours will be offered in any given week or whether a decision to turn down hours will lead to future work being withdrawn as a penalty. As a result, zero-hours contracts have serious implications for the management of household budgets, family and caring commitments, employment rights and relations, and access to tax credits and other benefits.

‘They also have profound implications for those who depend on the services that zero-hours contract workers provide given their potential to negatively impact on morale, team cohesion, staff turnover and service quality.

‘It may be too early to move toward an outright ban of zero-hours contracts given that a minority value the flexibility and choice they provide but there is an indisputable case for giving urgent consideration to what safeguards can be introduced to improve things for the majority.’

Commenting on the report TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘The report highlights how the government is failing to address many of the abuses experienced by workers on zero-hours contracts.

‘We agree with the Resolution Foundation that individuals working regular hours should be offered a contract containing fixed hours, but they should not have to wait 12 months for increased job and income security.

‘The TUC would like the government to go further and ensure that staff on zero-hours contracts are properly rewarded for the flexibility they offer employers and that they get the same basic workplace rights as employees.’