Zero-hours contracts: What is it like living on one?

Two young men looking at their mobile phones Without guaranteed work, zero hours can mean a frustrating wait for a call from your employer

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There could be as many as four times more people than previously thought in jobs that do not guarantee them work, new figures suggest. So what is it like to be on a so-called zero-hours contract?

For almost all of the 25 years that Karen has worked in adult social care, she has had contracted hours and been paid a full-time wage for a full month's work.

But when her local council started using a new private care company, she and her colleagues were transferred to zero-hours contracts.

Overnight, Karen says, their salaries were cut in half to about £300 a month.

Caring mainly for elderly people with dementia and other personal care needs, she says the move impacted her approach to work.

"I'd like to think I still did the same job, cared for them in the same way - but I lost that spring in my step."

Who uses zero-hours contracts?

Hotel and restaurant sector (19% of workplaces)

Health sector (13%)

Education sector (10%)

Companies with 100+ employees (23%)

Source: Workplace Employment Relations Survey

'No security'

On a zero-hours contract, an employee is only paid for the hours the employer needs them.

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

"But if you say you can't work that day they don't tend to ring you again because they say you're not turning up - it makes you feel unworthy."

Government figures for England suggest there are over 300,000 zero-hours workers in adult social care alone.

Some welcome the use of these contracts, arguing that they give employees flexibility over their own work schedules, as well as benefitting employers.

Calum, a 17-year-old housekeeper at the holiday operator Center Parcs, says having a zero-hours contract enables him and other students working there to fit work around their studies.

"The job suits me," he says.

But days away from his two-year anniversary with the company, he says he has been told he is no longer needed.

"They make it quite clear when you start - you've got no employment rights and no job security until you've been employed for two years. And now they want to terminate me."

What is a zero-hours contract?

Commuters on their way to work

Unions say there has been an explosion in the use of zero-hours contracts since their introduction to the job market from the retail sector in the early 1990s.

Under such contracts, employees agree to make themselves available for work as and when required, but have no guaranteed hours or shift patterns.

Employment arbitration service Acas says the contracts may suit those who require only occasional earnings and want to be entirely flexible about when they work.

But unions have criticised the lack of certainty over earnings and employment rights, coupled with the potential disruption to family life caused by frequent short-notice calls to work.

Unison says this type of employment is insecure, stressful and makes budgeting impossible. It adds people are afraid to complain for fear offers of work might dry up.

Center Parcs spokesman Simon Kay says he cannot comment on individual cases but says: "We only offer this type of contract to employees who benefit from the flexibility."

Those aged 18 to 24 - already hit hard by the recession - are among those most likely to be on zero-hours contracts, the latest research suggests.

"If we ever turned down a shift then they'd (employers) see us as unreliable and cut our hours for weeks to come," insists one 18-year-old who works for 1st Energy in Essex - a claim dismissed as "nonsense" by its chief executive, Sean Rider.

However, another student working at a tourist attraction in Beer, Devon - who also wishes to remain anonymous - says he was just pleased to get the work.

"I'd been looking for a job for nine months," he says.

"I'm probably the best person to hire on this type of contract as I don't have to do any budgeting or family planning."

'Slept on sofas'

Meanwhile, for those in the more advanced stages of their career, having an unpredictable income can mean life's plans have to be put on hold.

One 40-year-old further education teacher has told the BBC that she is still living with her mum because her zero-hours contract prevents her saving for a deposit and getting a mortgage.

"One month you could be earning £1,000, the next it could be £600. It's incredibly frustrating," she says.

And she is not alone.

Pat is almost 50. Until recently, his job involved trying to get donations over the phone for some the UK's best-known charities - Cancer Research UK, Oxfam, the National Trust, Save the Children.

He says colleagues were happy to be on flexible contracts when there was more work around.

But with the start of the recession, he says Pell and Bales - the telemarketing company he worked for - decided to put its employees on zero-hours terms.

It meant his shifts could suddenly be cancelled at just 24-hours notice and it could be weeks before there was more work.

"I'd have the landlord screaming at me for the rent," he says. "The fridge would be empty. I'd have to lean on friends for help, I've slept on sofas - lots of us did. It's the only way to keep going."

Responding to the comments, Pell and Bales chief executive Derwyn Jones says: "We try to provide our employees with the type of contract they want," pointing out that many staff are musicians, students or actors who appreciate the flexibility.

Ian Brinkley, director of the Work Foundation think tank, says there is a huge spectrum of people affected by the rise of zero-hours contracts.

"At one end - in domestic care, retail, hotels - it's exploitative and pretty awful. But on the other hand, 25% [of workers on such contracts] are students and those in post-grad as teachers.

"For them it's probably a much better experience and gives a degree of flexibility."

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