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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder