Zero Choices: Swapping zero-hour contracts for secure, flexible working

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hotel worker changing bed sheets in hotel room

At a time when the UK faces record sickness levels and persistent worker shortages, there is a pressing need to reform employment law to better reflect the realities of modern ways of working in the 21st century.

New research by the Work Foundation at Lancaster University has found a record 1.1 million working age people are on zero-hours contracts in the UK, as their main form of employment. Zero-hour contracts are an enduring example of insecure work and the trade-offs faced by people at the sharp end of the labour market. Regulating against the exploitative use of zero-hour contracts should serve as an important component of a wider package of reforms promoting secure work in the next Parliament. 

​In this policy brief we investigate the contemporary use of zero-hours contracts in the UK and examine policy options for reform from comparable countries, with a particular focus on how to introduce regulation in a way that extends contractual security and guaranteed hours while maintaining opportunities for flexibility. 

​Many zero-hour contract workers have limited choice and face severe insecurity

Our analysis shows that women are 1.2 times more likely than men to be on zero-hour contracts. Black workers are 2.7 times more likely than white workers to be on zero-hour contracts; and those from multiple/mixed backgrounds are 2.3 times more likely than white workers.

​Young workers (16–24-year-olds) are 5.9 times more likely to be on zero-hours contracts than workers across older age groups. Importantly, this is not just students fitting work around studies: young workers who are not students are still 3.5 times more likely than other age groups to be on zero-hours contracts.

​Employers have choices, most workers do not

​Zero-hour contracts are most prevalent in the accommodation and food, arts, admin and health and social sectors. Some employers in these sectors are actively using zero-hour contracts to manage fluctuating workforce requirements. However, there are others, such as Wetherspoons, who have introduced an option for guaranteed hours for its workforce. The company reported that 99% of people opted for the guaranteed hours contract, with only 1% choosing a zero-hours model.

Time to end one-sided flexibility and follow the lead of other countries

​The presence of insecure work is a long-term labour market trend that will not be resolved overnight or with one policy. Limiting the use of zero-hours contracts is just one aspect of addressing the larger issue of insecure work.

​The slowness of the UK to tackle this type of insecure work has seen it fall behind several other countries who have either banned zero-hours contracts, or heavily regulate their use, including New Zealand, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Finland, and Norway. 

Read the full report here

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