The Office for National Statistics has revealed that 697,000 people (about 2.26% of employees) are on zero-hours contracts in their main job, up more than 100,000 on a year ago. Such contracts make life uncertain for the employees concerned, who may not know from week to week, or even from day to day, whether they have paying work. Some 33% of those on zero-hours contracts say they would like to work more. So should we be clamping down on zero-hours contracts? No, we should not.
First, it is absolutely correct that zero-hours contracts have become far more common in the last two or three years. They hovered at about 0.5% for most of the period since 2000. They rose in use quite slowly between 2005 and 2012, then shot up to just under 2% in 2013 and to that 2.26% figure in 2014.
However, the unemployment rate has also come down in the last two or three years as well. In 2011 it stood at over 8%. Now it is less than 6%, and seemingly headed steadily down. Even though zero-hours contracts represent only a very small part of the labour force, it seems reasonable to argue that the two trends are related. The economic outlook is brighter, but is still uncertain; businesses remain unsure about the future, unsure about their markets, unsure of how much they should invest, unsure of how many workers they can justify taking on. A bust-up in the eurozone, for example, or a general election that delivers an unfavourable or unworkable government. might change the outlook completely for many UK businesses. So the only way that they can rationally expand their production, and be ready if things really do boom, it so cut their employment risk. Hence zero-hours contracts.
Remember too that even though the ONS talks about people's 'main' job, they might not be the only income earners in a household. The same is true of those on the minimum wage: many of them will be secondary earners. In fact, 34% of those on zero-hours contracts are aged 16-24 and half of those are in full time education. To them, a minimum wage job or a zero-hours contract, while frustrating, is not a disaster, and the extra income, however low or intermittent, is welcome.
Critics – you know who – say that the government has allowed a 'low-pay culture' to go 'unchecked'. So what would be their solution? Ban zero-hours contracts? Raise the minimum wage yet further? The inevitable result would be that employers would no longer be willing to take the risk of employing so many people. And first to go would be young people, with fewer skills and less understanding of workplace culture than more experienced employees, and secondary earners, often women. There would be fewer 'starter' jobs through which young and unskilled people could gain experience, more young people trapped in benefits, and a rise in unemployment more generally.
What will do in zero-hours contracts, of course, is continuing economic growth. As unemployment falls, businesses will find it harder to attract employees, and workers and potential workers can become more choosy about the jobs they take. Zero-hours contracts will once again become a very small part of the employment market. Growth, employment, greater security. Job done, and not a politician in sight.