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