When is a job not a job? The rise of 'zero hours' contracts

Laura Kuenssberg

Former Business Editor

"Zero hours" contracts have been used for many years in the care sector Credit: Angelika Warmuth/DPA/Press Association Images

For months, experts have puzzled over how the number of people in work has stayed so high, although the economy is stuck in the doldrums.

Tonight, we can reveal part of the answer, as so called "zero hours" contracts have reached a record high.

The number of workers in jobs, but without any guarantee of regular hours or regular pay, has hit 200,000 according to official figures from the Office for National Statistics for ITV News, more than doubling in just under a decade.

Under the contracts, employers are legally allowed to employ staff, often in the lowest paid jobs, without any promise of actual work, or income, literally calling them up and summoning them to work or sending them home from one day to the next.

This is legal, and in theory, employees are allowed to turn work down, and allowed to go for other jobs.

It is also important to say that for many workers, a "zero hours" contract can work extremely well, giving flexibility, and in some cases, relatively high pay.

But in practice, often workers are trapped in jobs with no security, no regular income, feeling like they have no choice but to be legally, at the beck and call of their employer.

There have always been some industries where there have been fluctuations, agricultural work for example.

As you might expect too, the number varies significantly from season to season - every year the number of "zero hours" staff rises in the run up to Christmas as shops seek to come with demand.

But recession has meant this method of employment has spread, and for some workers it has made life very tough.

Tonight we speak to one "zero hours" worker, too scared to be identified, who told me how from one week to the next she has no idea of how many shifts she will get, frustrated and agitated by how her employer has treated her.

She told me to start with her employer suggested there would be plenty of work on offer for her to choose from. In practice that has not happened.

With perhaps one shift one week, maybe three the next, it is almost impossible to budget, and even harder to save.

And she says it is impossible to say no when shifts are offered. There have even been occasions when she has been called in to work, and then sent home without a shift, and without any pay.

She told me "it's difficult....sometimes they make you wait around for an hour to see if there are any positions available. If there aren't you have to go home and that's a day's wage lost ."

Sarah Veale, of the TUC, tells us, "it is a sign of desperation that people will take anything at the moment...we're not valuing people, we're just looking at them as industrial fodder."

"Zero hours" contracts have been used for many years in the care sector Credit: Angelika Warmuth/DPA/Press Association Images

Yet while the realities are harsh for some workers with unpredictable, unsteady hours and incomes, Kevin Green of the employment organisation the REC told me in clear terms, the rise of zero hours contracts is one of the factors that has kept our unemployment rate down.

And for many businesses, he believes using zero hours has been a way to keep staff costs down, and therefore stay afloat.

He firmly believes it is better to have any job than no job at all, and says, "you could be saying this is keeping 200,000 people in work who may not have been in work if it wasn't for these sorts of contracts."

Even though he condemns practices such as calling workers in and then sending them home if no shifts are available, Green believes the proliferation of these contracts is something we should be proud of, and is very likely to continue.

Not all employers are upbeat though.

Colin Angel from the United Kingdom Homecare Association told me care providers would love to be able to employ their staff full time but it is just not possible, because local authorities' budgets have forced them to drive down their costs.

The contracts have been used for many years in the care sector but the squeeze on public sector cash has made them even more common.

One provider told me there are very real consequences "the turnover of staff is mindblowing" with the average worker moving on after only three months'.

They said although they would love to have full time staff, if they did, "We would be bankrupt in very quick time... alas...virtually all domiciliary care companies employ zero hour carers for the same reasons as ourselves."

The House of Lords also uses "zero hours" contracts Credit: Tim Ireland/PA Wire

And while traditionally you might expect this kind of contract to used in limited industries, we have seen evidence of zero hours being used in some rather surprising places - The Co-op employs around a fifth of its funeral staff this way, the House of Lords uses the contracts as do Boots, Bupa, Cineworld, Centerparcs, the NHS including contracts for ambulance crew, nursery schools, driving jobs, and many others.

Even before the economic downturn, changes in the way we work were certainly under way.

But as the doldrums drag on, for many thousands it means work without security, income without guarantee and an uncertain future.