Women and young people most likely to work on zero-hours contracts

ONS report shines light on demographic most affected by precarious work 

New statistics on zero-hours contracts have revealed that more than 50 per cent of those working in such roles are women, raising concerns that they are being disproportionately affected by the precarious nature of much zero-hours work.

A new Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, Contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: April 2018, combined data from the latest Labour Force Survey and an ONS business survey in November 2017 to come up with an estimate of the number and make-up of zero-hours contracts in the UK – generally defined as contracts that offer no guaranteed hours to the worker.

Estimates suggested that 6 per cent of UK employment contracts were carried out on a ‘zero hours’ basis in November 2017, equating to 1.8 million contracts, an increase of 100,000 on the equivalent figures for November 2016. 

According to a demographic breakdown outlined in the report, more than half (54.7 per cent) of respondents working on zero-hours contracts were women, supporting previous figures that suggested women, particularly single parents, were more likely to be trapped in more precarious work

Almost two-thirds (66 per cent) of people on zero-hours contracts work part-time. 

Younger workers make up the other key demographic of those working on zero-hours contracts, with nearly one in 10 (8.7 per cent) in full-time education and 36 per cent overall aged between 16 and 24. 

Catherine Sermon, employment director at Business in the Community, warned that many people were facing a choice between jobs that fail to lift them out of poverty, or continuing in unemployment, “which is no choice at all”. 

“Employers must balance flexible working, good employment practice and job security in a way that works best for them, the fluctuating demands of their business, client demands and their workforce,” she said. 

But Sophie Wingfield, head of policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said that “many people on zero-hours contracts are in full-time education – the advantage of having that flexibility allows students to fit in hours around their studies. 

“Flexible contracts also offer employers the ability to respond quickly to the fluctuating demands of the economy.” 

When managed well and by choice, such contracts are an important means of offering people increased choice and flexibility in their working lives, she said. 

“These contracts also offer a part-time option that people choose to fit around their other commitments, and data has shown that more than half of employees on zero-hours find that it creates a positive work-life balance. For some workers it won’t be their only job, but a way to top up with additional income or get experience in a new or different field.” 

However, with the average respondent on a zero-hours contract working 25 hours a week, just over one-quarter of people (25.3 per cent) said they wanted more hours in their current job. 

“Too often, decisions are taken or working practices are designed without the engagement and involvement of staff. Better decisions could be made with this involvement. Many people want the flexibility of zero-hours contracts, but for those that they don’t work for, the impact can be incredibly destabilising and trap them in poverty,” said Sermon. 

The new statistics follow a request from ministers for the Low Pay Commission (LPC) to consider the impact of higher minimum wage rates specifically for those on zero-hours contracts and non-guaranteed hours, after calls by campaigners to enhance their rights and protections. 

After the Matthew Taylor review of modern working practices, the government pledged to introduce the ‘right to request’ a payslip and more stable contract from day one of a contract.  

But Taylor said the government should ask the LPC to advise on the higher minimum wage proposal for zero-hours contractors and the government must “take steps to ensure that flexibility does not benefit the employer at the unreasonable expense of the worker, and that flexibility is genuinely a mutually beneficial arrangement”. 

He suggested the wage be made higher to incentivise employers to schedule guaranteed hours “as far as is reasonable” to enable zero or short-hours contracts or requests that individuals work longer hours than those in their contract, but to compensate the most vulnerable workers “for the additional flexibility demanded of them”. 

Taylor said that while some people are happy with zero or nominal-hours contracts,  for many – particularly those who cannot find other employment – they are a problem as they find it harder to get mortgages or loans.  

“The key principle for the effective and ethical use of zero-hours contracts is that, wherever possible, the flexibility they offer should work for the individual as well as the employer,” Ian Brinkley, acting chief economist at the CIPD, told People Management

“This includes employees not being placed on zero-hours contracts for long periods of time with no guarantee of work. That is why the CIPD believes workers on zero-hours contracts should have the right to request a minimum number of hours per week after 12 months of employment.”

Ongoing economic uncertainty could incentivise more businesses to use zero-hours contracts to create greater flexibility in their workforce throughout 2018, said Alan Price, employment law director at Peninsula.

However, he added that the potential introduction of the ‘right to request’ could drive the numbers down. “Employers may be put off using flexible contracts because of the new ‘right to request’, as they may become confused about the process or believe they will now have to give all workers guaranteed hours when they ask for it,” he said. 

“Although the details around this new right are unconfirmed because of an ongoing consultation, it does appear there will be no right to receive a fixed-hours contract but merely to make a request. 

“Before the impact of this right is known, employers may delay employing more individuals on zero-hours contracts and, if the right is onerous on employers, they may reconsider their contractual arrangements.” 

The government consultation, Enforcement of employment rights recommendations, closes on 16 May.