Cable warns of exploitation of zero-hours contracts


Business Secretary Vince Cable: "I think at one end of the market there is some exploitation taking place"

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The Business Secretary Vince Cable fears zero-hours contracts are being abused after research suggested a million people could be working under them.

Mr Cable said he was concerned there was "some exploitation" of staff on the contracts which give no guarantees of shifts or work patterns.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found up to 4% of the UK workforce were on such contracts.

It surveyed 1,000 firms.

"I think at one end of the market there is some exploitation taking place," said Mr Cable.

However, he pointed out that in many cases the level of flexibility offered by the contracts suited employees. "It can work for the worker as well as the employer," he told the BBC.

Formal consultation?

Mr Cable has been leading a review on the issue for the government since June and will decide in September whether to hold a formal consultation on specific proposals.

Unions have called for them to be banned.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, said: "The vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain."

Despite controversy over their use, just 16% of those affected said their employer often fails to provide them with sufficient hours each week.

Start Quote

You feel bullied. You start at 06:30am, could work till 11:30am, then be told there's no more work for you today”

End Quote Karen, social care worker

This was higher amongst those who described themselves as part-time, where 38% said they would like to work more hours.

Under zero-hours contracts employees agree to be available for work as and when it is required.

Positive role

Figures from the Office for National Statistics last week suggested 250,000 workers were on zero-hours contracts.

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said the reason his survey showed up to four more times the number of people on zero hour contracts compared to official figures could be down to a lack of precision in the measurement, as well as confusion over definitions.

"I think even sometimes employers themselves are not fully clear on the absolute nature of their contracts and whether it is genuinely zero hours," he said.

"There does need to be a closer look at what is meant by a zero-hours contract, the different forms that they take, and clearer guidance on what good and bad practice in their use looks like.

"Zero-hours contracts, used appropriately, can provide flexibility for employers and employees and can play a positive role in creating more flexible working opportunities.

"However, for some this may be a significant disadvantage where they need more certainty in their working hours and earnings... Zero-hours contracts cannot be used simply to avoid an employer's responsibilities to its employees."

The news emerged as it was reported that part-time staff at retailer Sports Direct and a number of London councils were among those employed on such terms.

Fluctuating wages

According to the CIPD's research, firms in the voluntary and public sectors were more likely to use zero-hours contracts than those in the private sector.

The industries where employers were most likely to report having at least one person on a zero-hours contract were hotels, catering and leisure, education and healthcare.

The CPID said one in five employers in the UK had at least one person on a zero-hours contract. This means workers can be officially counted as employed, but have no guaranteed paid work and can be sent home from their workplace without warning and without having earned anything.

While zero-hours contracts may suit some due to the flexibility they provide, critics point out that the system can lead to fluctuating wages and a risk that managers may use their contract as both reward and punishment.

Graphic showing full-time workers, part-time workers and zero-hour contracts

Rochelle Monte is a care worker on a zero-hours contract and she told Radio 4's Today Programme that she gave her employer details of her availability and then had to "hope for the best".

"It can change dramatically over the space of a week.

"So you might start off a week thinking you've got 40 hours, but by the end of the week you could be down to 12," she said.

Colin Angel from the UK Homecare Association said zero-hours contracts were a response to the way that local authorities commissioned home care services.

"Councils buy 70-odd percent of all hours of home care - and it's proved to be the way that you can retain a workforce who are available very flexibly whose hours can change over a month.

"[It] works well for care workers who largely appreciate the flexibility that their contracts have," he said.

At places of employment found to be using the contracts, the average number of workers who were on them was around 16%, according to CIPD.

Based on these figures, CIPD calculated that between 3% and 4% of all workers were on zero-hour contracts - equating to a million people in the UK labour force.

The employees who took part in the poll worked an average of just under 20 hours a week and were most likely to be aged between 18 and 24 or over 55.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    This has been happening for yrs. I had a job like this under Labour. Were they interested, not a bit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    These contracts might be good for some people: those who have married full-time working partner and no children, for example, including those who do not wish to have credit or be responsible for renting or buying houses on their own. But for the vast majority of people who have commitments, like children, rent/mortgages to be paid, savings to build up, etc etc they are worse than useless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I am a support worker and on a 0 hour contract. I get called when I am required and that's really the only way an orgnisation like this can employ people. I can assure you that the managers where I work wish there was another way to guarantee people hours as I've seen how the organisation works from doing administration work for them before, but there just isn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Seems like all politicians should be on Zero Hour contracts.....then we could leave them at home where they can do no harm...and not pay them either.


  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    The Government's Great Unemployment has gone down con is shown for what it really is an excuse to pay peanuts and take away workers protection while lining the pockets of Tory fatcat paymasters with massive pay awards and tax cuts.

    This will be this abysmal government's poll tax moment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Everyone takes a hit. Not just sob story victims that roll out the mundane, 'the tories hate us' tripe. Zero hour contracts are better than unemployment. Not everyone can have a 9-5 job, the Tories understand this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Quite simply, these contracts should be banned in entirety.

    How is it that officials who worked on Olympics, which was a specific duration EMPLOYMENT contract, were then paid £millions in redundancy payments & pensions payments. They were working a SPECIFIC 5 year contract, yet the hundreds of thousands of lowly workers got sweet all, no payoffs, no massive pensions payment bonuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    So what's the alternative, have employers pay employees for sitting around doing nothing until the work comes in?

    It would be nice to not have zero hours contracts, but we live in the world as it is, not as you would like it. Wake up to the reality, and be thankful that employers are offering whatever hours they have available. Don't expect them to pay you for sitting idle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I work in recruitment - zero hours contracts rarely benefit the worker, and even if they do, they are usually more benefitial to the employer.

    I think there should be a retainer in place for them (e.g. if we don't offer any work, we pay you £x. If the worker turns down work that invalidates the retainer for said period

    Atleast that puts an onus on the employer to offer a minimum number of hours

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Men used to queue up for work in the docks and at factories, often returning home without having worked because too few men were needed. Why was this stopped, and by which law?

    How can child care etc. be booked if the worker doesn't know when they will be working?

    I temped for years - it is hard to budget when you don't know when you will be working. Now no such thing as a "permanent" job?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    People are fools. It's the fault of the people.

    They are only doing what they get away with!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Zero hours contracts suit some people though .... if one wishes to work part-time and yet still have the flexibility and means to 'pick and choose' it is ideal ..... if one needs guaranteed work however go for a permanent contract but then even these contracts have down sides!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I took a job at the council with a 0hrs contract when I was 18. I did it for 3 years around education & it was great to begin with. But when the hours dried up & I wasn't even receiving half of what I used to get, there was no-one to turn to. The job centre wouldn't even help me because I was technically 'working' by doing about 15hrs a month. Good idea but badly organized/implemented/exploited

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I totally agree with everyone who thinks Amazon is a disgrace and I never use them. However please remember that employers are thumped with a 14% workers tax by HMG and soon will have to contribute to pensions. It's no wonder they are looking for ways to save money whilst still giving people employment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I had worked such a contract as a student around 6 years ago. (I worked Market Research doing phone surveys). At the time great for flexibility, but we had guaranteed work. I couldn't keep it up as a graduate as it was not plausible, we got no sick/holiday pay. What is going on now, is not fair, as there is not much not work going around, so employees have no choice for themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Whilst I agree with most of sentiment already expressed (except that it was a labour govt. in power when these contracts came into use), I'd bet most of the subscribers are happy to drink in a Wetherspoon pub, or eat in McDonalds or nip into Sports Direct for some designer gear, all because they are cheap. We get what we (as a Society) pay for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    For those old enough to remember the Thatcher and Major years, the idea of a job for life had gone. I had the impression, after 13 years of a Labour government, that this concept was returning; more people felt secure in their jobs. Now we see what happens after three years of a coalition. What would have happened had the Tories won outright?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Zero hours are not worth much in my opinion.

    No holiday pay, no contracted rights, no chance of any kind of credit application or rent being approved

    I bet the Government use these kind of jobs within their unemployment figures too.

    How are people supposed to live?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    @51 drcarol

    Couldn't have said it better myself!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Straight from the 21st Century back to the 19th! Cameron, Osborne and their wealthy 5% of the people just LOVE zero hours contracts. Why don't we just go back to serfdom and be done with it? Britain is rapidly becoming the second-most inequable society in the western world - the govt thinks how DARE the poor have bedrooms for children, and how DARE the government get taxes from my £25M penthouse!


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