How zero-hours contracts hide real unemployment

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

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

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.