Pearson - Always learning

All your resources for Economics

RSS icon Subscribe | Text size

Posts Tagged ‘zero-hours contracts’

A fall in the UK natural rate of unemployment?

When UK unemployment was 7.7% in July 2013, Mark Carney, the newly arrived governor of the Bank of England, said that the Bank would probably have to rise interest rates when the unemployment rate dropped below 7%. Below that rate, it was expected that inflation would rise. In other words, 7% was the NAIRU – the non-accelerating rate of inflation. The most recent figure for the unemployment rate is 4.8% and yet the Bank of England has not raised interest rates. In fact, in response to the Brexit vote, it cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% in August last year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)

The NAIRU is a similar, although not identical, concept to the natural rate of unemployment. The natural rate is the equilibrium rate consistent with an overall long-term balance of aggregate labour demand and supply: i.e. the rate after short-term cyclical movements in unemployment have been discounted. It is thus a long-term concept.

The NAIRU, although similar, focuses on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. With inflation caused solely by demand-side factors, the natural rate and the NAIRU will be similar if not identical. However, if cost-push factors change – say there is a poor harvest, which pushes up food prices and inflation (temporarily), or a substantial depreciation of the exchange rate caused by political factors (such as Brexit) – the NAIRU would increase, at least in the short term, as a higher rate of unemployment would be necessary to stop inflation rising. In the long term, although being defined differently, the NAIRU and the natural rate will be the same.

In practice, because the Bank of England is targeting inflation at a 24-month time horizon, the NAIRU for the UK at that point could also be seen as the natural rate.

So with the Bank of England not raising interest rates despite the considerable fall in the unemployment rate, does this imply a fall in the natural rate of unemployment? The answer is yes. The reason has to do with changes in the structure of the labour market.

The proportion of young people and women with children returning to the labour market has fallen. Such people have a higher-than-average rate of unemployment since they typically spend a period of time searching for a job.

Tax and benefit reforms over the years have increased the incentive for the unemployed to take work.

Perhaps the biggest factor is a greater flexibility in the labour market. As union power has waned and as people are increasingly working on flexible contracts, including zero-hour contracts, so this has moderated wage increases. At the same time, many firms are facing increased competition both from abroad and domestically via the Internet. This has put downward pressure on prices and hence on the wages firms are willing to pay.

The effect has been a fall in the NAIRU and probably the natural rate. Frictions in the labour market have reduced and people losing their jobs because of changes in industrial structure find it easier to get jobs in low-skilled service industries, where employers’ risks of taking on such workers have fallen because of the loss of rights for such workers.

So what is the natural rate of unemployment today? It is certainly much lower than 7%; the consensus is that it is probably below 5%. As Kristin Forbes, External MPC Member of the Bank of England stated in a recent speech:

[Unemployment] is forecast to increase gradually from its current 4.8% to a high of 5.0% in the second half of 2017, before falling back to its current rate by the end of 2019. To put this in context, 5.0% was previously believed to be around the UK’s natural rate of unemployment – the rate below which unemployment could not fall without wages picking up to levels inconsistent with sustaining inflation around the 2% target. Unemployment at 5.0% is also below the average unemployment rate for the UK over the pre-crisis period from 1997 to 2007 (when it was 5.5%).

She went on to discuss just what the figure is for the natural, or ‘equilibrium’, rate of unemployment (U*). One problem here is that there is considerable uncertainty over the figure in the current forecast made by the Bank.

[An] assumption in the forecast about which there is substantial uncertainty is of the equilibrium unemployment rate – or U* for short. Since I have been on the MPC, the Committee has assumed that U* was around 5%. This implied that the more by which unemployment exceeded 5%, the more slack existed in the economy, and the less upward momentum would be expected in wages (controlling for other factors, such as productivity growth).

As part of our annual assessment of regular supply-side conditions this January, Bank staff presented several pieces of analysis that suggested U* may be lower than 5% today [see, for example]. The majority of the MPC voted to lower our estimate of U* to 4.5%, based partly on the persistent weakness of wage growth over the past few years after accounting for other factors in our models. [See page 20 of the February 2017 Inflation Report.]

My own assessment, however, suggested that although U* was likely lower than 5% today, it is likely not as low as 4.5%. If true, this would suggest that there is less slack in the economy than in the MPC’s central forecast, and wage growth and inflation could pick up faster than expected.

Against that, however, uncertainty related to Brexit negotiations could make firms more cautious about raising wages, thereby dampening wage growth no matter where unemployment is relative to its equilibrium. Moreover, even if we could accurately measure the level of U* in the economy today, it could easily change over the next few years as the labour force adjusts to any changes in the movement of labour between the UK and European Union.

Determining the precise figure of the current natural rate of unemployment, and predicting it for the medium term, is very difficult. It involves separating out demand-side factors, which are heavily dependent on expectations. It also involves understanding the wage elasticity of labour supply in various markets and how this has been affected by the increased flexibility of these markets.

Articles
When will Britons get a pay rise? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/2/17)
BoE decision, Inflation Report – Analysts react DigitalLook, Alexander Bueso (2/2/17)
Bank of England hikes UK economic growth forecasts but warns of rising inflation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/2/17)

Bank of England publications
Inflation Report Bank of England (February 2017)
A MONIAC (not manic) economy Bank of England Speeches, Kristin Forbes (8/2/17)
The labour market Bank of England Speeches, Michael Saunders (31/1/17)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between the following terms: natural rate of unemployment, NAIRU, equilibrium rate of unemployment, disequilibrium rate of unemployment.
  2. For what reasons did the Monetary Policy Committee members feel that the equilibrium rate of unemployment might be as low as 4.25%?
  3. Why might it be as high as 5%?
  4. How are changes in migration trends likely to affect (a) wage growth and (b) unemployment?
  5. How is the amount of slack in an economy measured? What impact does the degree of slack have on wage growth and inflation?
  6. What is meant by the ‘gig’ economy? How has the development of the gig economy impacted on unemployment and wages?
  7. Why has there been a considerable rise in self employment?
  8. How may questions of life style choice and control over the hours people wish to work impact on the labour market?
  9. If people are moving jobs less frequently, does this imply that the labour market is becoming less flexible?
  10. Why may firms in the current climate be cautious about raising wages even if aggregate demand picks up?
Share in top social networks!

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.
Share in top social networks!

More and more zeros

In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.

Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.

According to the ONS:

‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)

As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.

As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.

The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.

The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.

However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.

Articles
lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)

Data
Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
  2. Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
  3. In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
  4. Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
  5. What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
  6. If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
  7. What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
  8. Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
  9. Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
  10. Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
  11. Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
Share in top social networks!

Zero-hours contracts: the ultimate flexible labour market?

Despite the prolonged stagnation in the UK, unemployment has not soared. In fact, over the past two years the ILO unemployment rate (see here for a definition) has fallen slightly – from 8.6% in October 2011 to around 8.0% today. What is more, the claimant count rate is considerably lower than the ILO rate – at around 4.4%.

Part of the reason for the relatively good unemployment figures is the rise in ‘zero-hours contracts’. These allow employers to cut the hours that people work without laying them off. The Office for National Statistics estimates that last year (2012) 250,000 people, or 0.84% of the workforce, were on such contracts.

But just what is meant by ‘zero-hours contracts’? According to the ONS:

People on zero-hours contracts are classified as being in employment regardless of the number of hours they actually worked during the survey reference week. This includes anyone who was not required to work any hours during the reference week whilst remaining on their current contract of employment. The continued existence of the contract of employment is the key determinant of their employment status in these situations.

If people are working less than they would like to, this is classified as underemployment, but such people do not appear in the unemployment statistics. Such contracts thus mask the true extent of surplus labour in the economy.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) puts the figure much higher than the ONS. In the Summer 2013 issue of its Labour Market Outlook, it estimates that one million workers are on zero-hours contracts.

Many employers use such contracts, including many voluntary-sector and public-sector organisations, including the NHS, local councils and Buckingham Palace. They are also used by many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.

But many workers dislike such contracts, which give them fewer employment rights and fewer hours than they would like to work. It also makes it difficult to budget when future income is uncertain. It also make credit and mortgages harder to obtain, as people have no guaranteed income. Another complaint is that companies may use the threat of lower hours as a tool to bully staff and get away with poorer working conditions.

In May of this year, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced that he was setting up a review of zero hours contracts.

Note that zero hours are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.

The following videos and articles look at the issue in some detail: at the extent of the practice and at its benefits to employers and its costs (and some benefits) to workers. Both The Guardian and the BBC have an extensive range of articles on the topic.

Webcasts
Do zero hours contracts create real jobs? BBC Newsnight, Allegra Stratton (14/8/12)
Record number of ‘Zero Hours Contracts’ ITV News on YouTube, Laura Kuenssberg (2/5/13)
Britons rally against ‘Zero Hour’ contracts Al Jazeera on YouTube (4/8/13)
Anger at Amazon working conditions Channel 4 News (1/8/13)
Government to include Amazon in its zero hours probe Channel 4 News (2/8/13)
Councils using zero hours contracts BBC London, Warren Nettleford (31/7/13)

Podcasts
The real economy: Labour market BBC Today Programme, Evan Davis (24/8/11)
Zero hour contracts ‘just the norm’ BBC Today Programme, Rochelle Monte and Peter Cheese (5/8/13)

Articles
Zero-hours contracts: One million British workers could be affected Independent, Nigel Morris (5/8/13)
Zero hours contracts “spreading like wildfire”, official stats show Union News, Pete Murray (1/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts: what are they? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (30/7/13)
Buckingham Palace uses zero-hours contracts for summer staff The Guardian, Simon Neville, Matthew Taylor and Phillip Inman (30/7/13)
Nick Clegg: business department will investigate zero-hours contracts The Guardian,
Patrick Wintour, Simon Neville, Matthew Taylor and Phillip Inman (31/7/13)
Zero-hours contracts are not unavoidable The Guardian, Phillip Inman (1/8/13)
ONS admits it underestimated number of zero-hours contracts The Guardian, Simon Neville (1/8/13)
Zero-hours contract workers – the new reserve army of labour? The Guardian, Philip Inman (4/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts cover more than 1m UK workers The Guardian, Simon Goodley and Phillip Inman (5/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts use by councils needs to be moderated The Guardian, Vidhya Alakeson (5/8/13)
If zero-hours contracts are driving this ‘recovery’, it’s a lousy kind of recover The Guardian, Deborah Orr (9/8/13)
ONS increases its estimate of workers on zero hours contracts Financial Times, John Aglionby (1/8/13)
Zero Hours Herald Scotland, Ian Bell and Scott Dickson (4/8/13)
Sports Direct protests planned over zero hours contracts Channel 4 News (3/8/13)
Cable warns of exploitation of zero-hours contracts BBC News (5/8/13)
Q&A: What are zero-hours contracts? BBC News (5/8/13)
Record number of 16-24s on zero hours contracts at work BBC Newsbeat, Jim Reed (15/5/13)
Figures show 18-24s most likely on zero-hours contract BBC Newsbeat, Jim Reed and Amelia Butterly (5/8/13)
Andy Burnham calls for ban on zero hours contracts BBC News (28/4/13)
Zero-hours contracts: What is it like living on one? BBC News, Sean Clare (5/8/13)
Small Talk: Zero-hours contracts? Key for growth Independent, David Prosser (5/8/13)
Zero Hour Contracts Manchester based law firm, Emma Cross (30/7/13)

Data
People and proportion in employment on a zero-hour contract ONS (31/7/13)
Estimating Zero-Hour Contracts from the Labour Force Survey ONS (26/7/13)
One million workers on zero hours contracts, finds CIPD study CIPD, Michelle Stevens (5/8/13)
Labour Market Outlook CIPD

Questions

  1. Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
  2. Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
  3. Identify the various benefits to employers of zero-hours contracts?
  4. What are the costs and benefits to workers of such contracts?
  5. Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
  6. Are zero-hours contracts fair?
  7. In what ways do zero-hours contracts transfer risks from employers to employees?
  8. If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
  9. From the perspective of the employer, how do the benefits of zero-hours contracts compare with other forms of flexible working?
  10. Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
Share in top social networks!