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 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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