Number of UK workers on zero-hour contracts increased to 801,000

Zero-hour contracts are becoming more common in the UK. The number of workers on zero-hour contracts increased by 104,000 over the past year to 801,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

A zero-hour contract, also known as a low-hour contract, is a type of contract where the employer purports to have the discretion to vary the employee’s working hours.

The latest figures from the ONS revealed that 801,000 workers were on these type of contracts from October to December 2015, up from 697,000 in the same period in 2014.

ONS statistician Nick Palmer said: “This latest figure is rather higher than the 697,000 people who said they were on these contracts in late 2014. Though at least some of this increase may be due to greater public recognition of the term zero-hours contract, there’s also nothing to suggest this form of employment is in decline.”

Workers on zero-hour contracts worked an average of 26 hours a week and were more likely to be young or in full-time education. Approximately 38% were aged 16-24 and 23% were in full-time education.

Larger companies are more likely to use zero-hours contracts. They are frequently used in agriculture, hotels and catering, education and healthcare sectors.

The ONS said that these patterns “may partly reflect the groups most likely to find the flexibility of zero hours contracts [an] advantage; for example, young people who combine flexible working with their studies.”

Around one in three workers on a zero-hours contract wanted more hours, with the majority wanting them in their current job, as opposed to a different job which offered more hours. In comparison, 10% of other people in employment wanted more hours.

Research published by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) shows that average weekly earnings for zero-hours workers are just £188, compared to £479 for permanent workers.

The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Zero-hours contracts may be a dream for cost-cutting employers, but they can be a nightmare for workers. Many people on zero-hours contracts are unable to plan for their future and regularly struggle with paying bills and having a decent family life.

“The so-called flexibility these contracts offer is far too one-sided. Staff without guaranteed pay have much less power to stand up for their rights and often feel afraid to turn down shifts in case they fall out of favour with their boss.

“The European Union is proposing better rights for zero-hours workers – another reason why workers should be worried about the risks of Brexit.”

Two-fifths of zero-hours workers earn less than £111 a week – the qualifying threshold for statutory sick pay – compared to 1 in 12 permanent employees.

In its summary the ONS says: “It is not possible to say how much of this increase is due to greater recognition of the term ‘zero-hours contracts’ rather than additional contracts.”