New research recently published by the CIPD has estimated that the number of people working on zero hours contracts may be around four times higher than had been previously thought or estimated by the Office for National Statistics (and, apparently, guesswork).
With a number of high profile companies using this type of contract, including Boots, Amazon, Sports Direct and the National Trust, the debate surrounding them has hit the headlines over the last few weeks. The Office of National Statistics has since revised its figure but only to around 250,000, whereas it’s believed that there are as many as 300,000 people working under these contracts in the social care sector alone.
But is this actually a problem or does it simply offer a section of business and the UK workforce the ultimate in flexible working?
It could be argued that, in the current economy, the ability to change and shape your workforce on a month by month, week by week or even day by day basis has led to UK businesses being better able to ride the storm of the economic downturn. Some Southern European countries have seen firms really struggling under their stricter, more rigid employment contracts.
Small to medium sized businesses would argue that they have found it easier to adapt to the changing economic landscape having been allowed to employ workers on zero hours contracts. It has allowed them substantially more flexibility over employing permanent staff whilst still giving those workers some basic employment rights.
The flip side is that for many of these workers it makes living and sustaining any sort of consistent lifestyle very difficult – as they will have little idea how much work there could be in the future. There has also been concern over the way in which employers can call these workers in at short notice and perhaps demand anti social work patterns along with it.
Left wing MPs along with trade unions had called for a ban in this working practice. However at this time that seems unlikely with the Business Secretary Vince Cable commenting that for many workers and organisations this is a perfectly acceptable approach to employment contracts.
So, just how harmful are zero hours contracts? Do they help by allowing companies to be more flexible or are companies using the recession excuse to bring in a working practice that suits them better?