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Posts Tagged ‘flexibility’

Zer0-hours: still rising

Labour markets can be a key indicator of the strength of an economy, with emphasis placed on measures including the unemployment rate and the rate of job creation. Over the past few decades, we have seen many changes in the UK labour market, with more women, more part-time jobs, flexible hours and a shift towards services. After the financial crisis, unemployment declined and more and more people were entering the labour market. But one criticism of this was zero-hours contracts. They are nothing new and were considered in earlier blogs.

Zero hours contracts are essentially what they say: a contract where you are guaranteed to work for zero hours. This means that under such a contract, there is no guarantee that you will have employment on any given day/week and hence this creates uncertainty. However, on the other side, there can be more flexibility with such a contract and with growth in female participation and part-time work, flexibility is essential for many people. James Sproule, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors said:

“Zero hours contracts offer businesses and employees an important degree of flexibility. For skilled professionals, a degree of flexibility can boost their earning power, while flexibility also suits students and older people – the main users of zero-hours contracts – who cannot commit to a set number of hours each and every week.”

The ONS has found that businesses are using more zero-hours contracts, with a 6% rise. This reflects a growth in January from 1.4 million to 1.5 million zero-hours contracts, though this increase was not statistically significant. Over the past year, the use of these contracts has increased by 19%, from 624,000 people employed on them in 2014 to 744,000 people in 2015.

Although there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts, there is also more recognition of these contracts. Therefore, part of the increase in the numbers could be down to this recognition and not just due to more and more people moving onto these contracts. With this greater flexibility, comes more opportunities for more people to enter the labour market. While this is a good thing, it can hide some other aspects. For example, if more people are working, it may suggest a fall in the rate of unemployment and a rise in employment, but perhaps this is misleading if some of those in employment are under-employed. The data revealed that:

On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week, with around 40% of them wanting more hours, most from their current job, rather than in a different or additional one.

Furthermore, for some people there may be very few other options. However, there was also evidence that the possibility of zero-hours contracts has created opportunities for those who may otherwise not have entered the labour market: perhaps women re-entering the labour market and students in full time education. They also offer businesses greater flexibility and this may be a key way for the UK to improve efficiency and productivity. Jon Ingham from Glassdoor, an employment analyst said:

“It’s no great surprise to see the number of people on these contracts is on the up … It’s safe to say that employees who accept a zero hours contract do not do so as a career choice. For most it’s because they have limited options. For some it might be beneficial to have the flexibility to fit around their lifestyle but for others it’s a substandard contract which offers little in the way of benefits or security.”

The change in the structure of the labour market has been on-going and this may be a small change in amongst a much larger structural change. As the economy continues its recovery, we may see a return to the more typical working contract, but it appears that there will always be this greater demand for flexibility in working patterns and hence perhaps the zero-hours contracts do have a place in Britain. The following articles consider the implications of this data.

ONS Report
Employee contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: 2015 udpate Office for National Statistics September 2015

Articles
Number of workers on zero-hours contracts up by 19% The Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts hold their place in UK labour market Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump 19% in a year Sky News (2/9/15)
19 per cent rise in people on zero hours contracts recorded across Britain over the last year Independent (2/9/15)
Use of zero-hours contracts rises by 6% BBC News (2/9/15)
Insecure ‘zero-hours’ jobs on the rise in Britain – ONS Reuters (2/9/15)

Questions

  1. What is a zero-hours contract?
  2. Outline the main advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts to both workers and businesses. You should think about different types of workers in your answer.
  3. How do you think the increase in zero-hours contracts has affected the unemployment rate in the UK?
  4. What is meant by under-employment? Would you class this as inefficient?
  5. What other changes have we seen in the UK labour market over the past 30 years? Have these changes made the labour market more or less flexible?
  6. Zero-hours contracts create greater flexibility. Do you think that they create greater functional, numerical of financial flexibility?
  7. If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
  8. Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
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Flexible labour markets and flexible firms

Over recent years, labour markets have become more flexible. Both firms and workers have been much more adaptable to changing market conditions.

This has been illustrated by responses to the 2008/9 recession and the minimal recovery since then. Many firms have seen a drop in demand for their products and have responded by producing less. But this has not necessarily meant laying off workers. But why not? The following include some of the reasons:

• greater flexibility in hours worked: thus hours can be reduced;
• reduction in real wages because of wages not keeping up with inflation;
• many workers receiving part of their income in the form of profit sharing: when profits fall, employees’ income automatically falls;
• a general reduction in unionisation in the private sector;
• in firms where workers are still unionised, unions and management increasingly seeing themselves to be on the ‘same side’: thus unions more willing to explore flexibility;
• less support from state if people are unemployed;
• greater flexibility from the use of temporary or agency staff: these can be reduced in a recession, thus helping to protect the jobs of established workers.

The following podcast looks at this growing flexibility and why it has helped to restrict the rise in unemployment.

Podcast
The real economy: Labour market BBC Today Programme, Evan Davis (24/8/11)

Articles
Agencies placing more in new jobs Western Mail (4/8/11)
Staff appointments increase at subdued pace in July, according to latest Report on Jobs The Recruitment & Employment Federation, News Release (4/8/11)
Manufacturing week: How we got here The Telegraph, Roland Gribben (27/8/11)
Jobless figures show the real risk of creating a lost generation London Evening Standard, Jonathan Portes, Director, National Institute of Economic and Social Research (17/8/11)
Flexible working: is more legislation needed? Personnel Today, Laura Chamberlain (1/9/11)
Recruitment agencies ‘play a big part’ in flexible working The Sales Director, John Oak (10/8/11)

Questions

  1. Find out what has happened to real GDP, employment and unemployment over the past four years. (Try searching Reference Tables for GDP and Labour Market Statistics on the National Statistics site at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/datasets-and-tables/index.html.)
  2. Distinguish between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the labour market? How has the relationship between the two groups changed in recent years?
  3. Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility of firms? (See Box 9.8 in Economics (7th ed), Web Case 6.2 in Essentials of Economics (5th ed), section 18.7 in Economics for Business (5th ed) or section 8.5 in Economics and the Business Environment (3rd ed).)
  4. Examine the effects of wage rises being less than the rate of inflation on the profit-maximising number of full-time equivalent people employed. How is this influenced by the rate of increase in the price of other inputs and the ability of the firm to raise prices in line with inflation?
  5. Should firms be required by law to allow workers to demand flexible working conditions? What forms might such flexibility take?
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