Zero-hours ‘become the norm’

LABOUR’S Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, last week warned that zero-hours contracts “have fast become the norm in some areas and sectors under this government”.

His comment followed a revision of official figures from the Office of National Statistics that the scale of the use of zero-hours contracts revealed that around 583,000 workers have been forced into zero-hours contracts last year.

These contracts oblige workers to be on stand-by but are called into work only as and when needed and are paid only for the hours worked. This leaves them uncertain of how much they will earn from one week to another and unable to plan their domestic and social lives because they never know when they might be called.

They are used widely in the social care sector, by hotels and many retailers.

Chuka Umunna said on Sunday that “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.

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 ONS assesses zero-hours contracts.

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

The new figures will come as an embarrassment to the Government. Business Minister Jo Swinson told Umunna in a written parliamentary answer that there were 250,000 people on zero-hours contracts in 2012 two months after Dilnot wrote a public letter to Umunna outlining his concerns.

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.”

There is suggestion that the ONS might still be underestimating the figure. Britain’s largest 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.

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.”

Umunna 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. Umunna was told by Dilnot last August that he had concerns that the ONS figures, based on the LFS, were underestimating the number of zero-hours contracts.

Dilnot told Umunna in August 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.”

The 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.”

Cable pledged in his conference to the Liberal Democrat conference last year to crack down on “exclusivity clauses” that prevent staff on zero-hours contracts working elsewhere. The business secretary spoke of how he would act against “abusive practices in zero-hours contracts”. But Labour believes it has an even tougher approach. Ed Miliband told the TUC last year that he would ban the exploitation of workers on zero-hours contracts by banning employers from insisting employees on the contracts are available even when there is no guarantee of any work, ending “exclusivity clauses” and stopping the use of the contracts when employees are in practice working regular hours.