UK workforce no more insecure than 20 years ago, says CIPD

Despite concerns over zero-hours contracts and the gig economy, new research finds limited evidence of the ‘casualisation’ of work

Workers in the UK are just as secure in their jobs as they were 20 years ago, a CIPD report has found, suggesting many concerns over the misuse of zero-hours contracts or gig economy work may be over-hyped.

The CIPD found non-permanent employees in the workforce – which includes those who are self-employed and temporary workers (including those on temporary zero-hours contracts) – made up 20 per cent of the UK workforce in 2018, a share that had not increased since 1998.

Its report, Megatrends: Is work in the UK really becoming less secure?, demonstrated limited evidence of increased casualisation of work, and said the share of ‘involuntary’ temporary workers who would rather have a permanent job was “highly cyclical” and dictated by the economic climate.

It found that just 14 per cent of those in gig economy work were doing it because they could not find permanent work.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said that while there had been a lot of focus on how zero-hours contracts and the gig economy could be potentially exploitative, the research suggested many workers in the gig economy also had regular jobs and were choosing to work on the side to boost their income.

While he conceded a “significant minority” of workers in atypical arrangements were not benefiting from them, Willmott said a disproportionate focus on this relatively small part of the workforce risked overlooking the wider issues around low pay and discrimination affecting people regardless of their contracting arrangements.

“The nature of these sorts of arrangements is that there is the potential for people to be exploited and there’s legitimate concern about that [but] what we are trying to do is have a nuanced debated around the use of atypical working arrangements, while also recognising they can suit people,” he said.

“The wider issue is addressing low pay and improving productivity across the economy so fewer people are in this position.”

Willmott added that the government was on the right track with its Good Work Plan, and warned against any proposals to ban zero-hours contracts. “If that did happen, employers would respond by using other forms of temporary work, such as agency staff or short hours contracts, which wouldn’t always lead to permanent work,” he said.

In July, the government said it would introduce legislation that would enable atypical workers who regularly undertook a certain number or pattern of hours to have this written into their contract, as well as consulting over plans to compensate individuals whose shifts were cancelled at short notice.

The CIPD report found levels of ‘involuntary’ work peaked at about 41 per cent in 1994, before dropping to just under 26 per cent in 2007. It increased again during the economic downturn to 40 per cent in 2013 and had fallen to just under 27 per cent by 2018.

In addition, there was no long-term increase in the percentage of workers who wanted more hours, which has held at around 7 per cent since 2002.