The number of people on zero-hours contracts has increased 21% in the last year to almost 1 million, which trade unions have warned shows a growing trend of employers hiring workers "on the cheap".
A report from the Office for National Statistics on Thursday said the number of people in jobs without a guaranteed minimum number of working hours in the UK had risen to 903,000 by June 2016 – almost 3% of the entire working population. In the same period last year the figure was 747,000.
Earlier this week, Sports Direct, one of the most high-profile employers to use zero-hours contracts, said it would offer its directly employed staff fixed-hours contracts and apologised to its workers.
The report shows:
– People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be young, female and in full-time education than people in regular employment.
– Almost a third (31%) of zero-hours workers want more hours.
– Some of the 903,000 people may have moved to a zero-hours contract in the last year without changing employer.
– Some 10% of UK businesses make use of zero-hours contracts, and 40% of businesses with 250 or more employees.
– The industry that most commonly uses the contracts is hospitality and catering, although it is also common in transport, health and social work, and education.
Employment rights campaigners used the figures to highlight the complexity and unfairness of workers not having a minimum set of working hours each week.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said on Thursday that the typical UK employee earns £11.05 an hour on average, 50% more than the hourly £7.25 a typical worker on a zero-hours contract earns.
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "Zero-hours contracts have become an easy way for bosses to employ staff on the cheap. There is no getting away from the fact that zero-hours workers earn less money and have fewer rights than people with permanent jobs.
"It is very easy for politicians and employers to talk about the ‘flexibility’ these contracts offer. But they are not the ones living at the sharp end of the labour market."
Some workers do, however, find zero-hours contracts useful and are content with the number of hours they work, such as students or those with caring obligations.
But analysis from the left-leaning Resolution Foundation think tank shows that only 1 in 5 zero-hours workers are full-time students.
Also, more than two-thirds of zero-hours workers have been with their current employer for more than a year, and the foundation suggests they would prefer traditional long-term employment contracts and all the benefits that go with them.
Conor D’Arcy, policy analyst at Resolution Foundation, said: "It is concerning that much of the growth [of zero-hours contracts] is among older workers, some of whom might struggle to balance their family budget if their income varies as a result of having no guaranteed hours.
"The prime minister could deliver on her powerful maiden speech critique of insecurity in the workplace by protecting the workers who get stuck on zero-hours contracts long-term when they would prefer a fixed-hours contract."
The foundation stopped short of calling for the contracts to be banned and instead said better protection for longer-term zero-hours workers was needed.
A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy said: "As the prime minister has made clear, we want to do more to build an economy that works for everyone and to help working people who are struggling to get by.
"Since May last year, the use of exclusivity clauses has been unlawful, meaning that individuals have more control over their lives and can work more hours with another employer if they wish.
"Fewer than 3% of the UK workforce classes itself as being on a zero-hours contract in their main job, with almost 70% of those on this type of contract happy with the number of hours they work."
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Smith at email@example.com.
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