How zero-hours contracts hide real unemployment

If you're on contract without work, the ONS can count you as employed.

The CBI and Institute of Directors have both waded into the debate over zero-hour contracts, arguing that tenuous labour is a necessary tool in the fight against unemployment. The Financial Times' Elizabeth Rigby, Duncan Robinson and Andrea Felsted report:

John Cridland, director-general of the business lobby, said those complaining about such contracts needed a “reality check”…

“These contracts play a vital role as a way of keeping people in employment,” said the head of the employers’ body. “If we hadn’t had this flexible working when the economy contracted, unemployment would have topped 3m – and it didn’t it went to 2.5m.”

Cridland may or may not be correct (the actual numbers do not appear to be based on any research, but even numbers pulled out of thin air may be correct through chance), but somewhat misses the point.

People on zero-hours contracts may count as employed even while, for all functional purposes, they have no job. When the ONS is counting employment, anyone who has a currently active zero-hours contract counts as "employed", even if they haven't taken a single shift in the week of the survey. And given the anecdotal evidence that employers frequently stop giving employees work as a way of effectively firing them, many of those employees actually are unemployed, then just haven't been told yet (official statistics on the practice don't exist for obvious reasons). Dawn Foster details the sort of stories which are common:

One colleague was slightly late two weeks in a row, and when asked why replied she’d had trouble finding a parking space. She didn’t come in the following week. Looking at the month’s rota I saw her name but with no shifts allocated. Two months later I saw her near my house. “Have you got a new job?" I asked. She explained she hadn’t, and that while she’d not been sacked, she hadn’t been offered any shifts and there’d been no explanation.

The ONS explains how they measure zero-hour workers who may be in that trap:

People who are on zero hours contracts count as employed. If they worked at least an hour in the survey reference period they would be counted in the employment numbers as usual. If a survey respondent did not in fact work in the reference period, the first question asked is whether they are 'temporarily away from a job' (they could be sick or on leave, etc..). Those on a zero-hours contract should reply to say they have a job to return to. In this instance they would be in employment but listed as having worked no hours

In other words, there are people who are not currently receiving work from an employer, and who will never again receive work from that employer, but who still count as "employed" in national statistics because their employer sees no need to officially fire them. This has additional implications for their lives. Some zero-hour contracts include rules banning the employee from taking work for other employers at the same time, while those who end up "voluntarily" leaving work are unable to claim many out-of-work benefits.

The effect of this on employment statistics is hard to measure, particularly since it is widely believed that employment statistics already fail to capture the full effect of zero-hours employment. The latest figures from the ONS show just over 200,000 people on the contracts, but the FT reports that "research released this week by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development claimed there were about 1m zero-hours workers in the UK". Regardless of the total, however, one thing is clear: for some people, the difference between a zero-hour contract and unemployment is negligible.

McDonalds is one of the firms at the centre of the zero-hour contract row. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.