The forward march of zero-hours contracts must be halted

The benefits these contracts provide come at too high a price for the overwhelming majority of those employed on them.

“It’s the uncertainty that gets to me,” Shirley says, despondently. “These contracts only work one way – they don’t offer any flexibility even if you wanted it because if you turn down hours you suffer. One of the girls had her hours permanently reduced because she asked the line manager for a day off to take her child to the doctors. From that day on her card was marked”.

You might assume that Shirley works at the shadowy margins of Britain’s labour market but she doesn’t. She’s a Day Services Support Worker at a North-West care home run by one of the UK’s leading independent providers of health and social care services and for the past year she’s been on a zero-hours contract.

For Shirley and thousands like her, life on one of these contracts means a life lived permanently on-call, uncertain as to whether a sufficient number of working hours can be secured each week to pay the bills and often fearful that any sign of inflexibility or unwillingness to work will lead to future hours being withdrawn as a penalty – what is commonly known as being “zeroed-down”.

Of course, zero-hours contracts are anything but a new phenomenon. Employment contracts of this kind have been around for years. What’s novel is how fast they are growing and spreading. Official statistics put the current number of zero-hours contracts across the UK at 208,000 (up from 134,000 in 2006) but this is almost certainly a significant under-estimate of the true scale of their use given that many workers are not even aware they’re on a zero-hours contract and those who are often fail to accurately self-identify as such in government surveys. Eight per cent of workplaces now utilise zero-hours contracts in some form and their use is becoming standard practice in sectors previously untouched by them such as higher education and retail.

As a report released this morning by the Resolution Foundation makes clear, the forward march of zero-hours contracts is likely to have profound implications for the UK economy, for individuals working on them, and for the services those people provide. Those employed on zero-hours contracts receive lower gross-weekly pay (an average of £236 per week) than those who are not (an average of £482 per week) and work fewer hours (an average of 21 hours per week compared to 31 for those who are not). They are also less likely to prefer this situation – 18 per cent of those on zero-hours contracts are actively seeking alternative employment or additional hours compared to 7 per cent of those who are not. As such, the rapid growth in the use of zero-hours contracts may partly explain the ability of the labour market to combine robust employment levels with an unprecedented squeeze on real wages and rising rates of under-employment.

Beyond the headline numbers, much of the evidence is anecdotal but it strongly suggests that for the overwhelming majority of those working on these contracts – those who require a minimum number of working hours per week to get by – life is extremely challenging. The erratic income stream that often comes with a zero-hours contract can make it difficult to manage household budgets, to juggle family and caring commitments, and to access tax credits and other benefits. Furthermore, the potential for this contractual situation to be used by management as a tool to reward or reprimand raises issues about how workers can adequately assert their employment rights or maintain decent employment relations. 

The impact of zero-hours contracts also often extends beyond the individuals working on them to those who depend on the services they provide. In many workplaces the widespread use of these contracts and the jostling to secure hours they often engender can lead to lower morale, weaker team cohesion, increased staff turnover and reduced service quality. This problem is perhaps most acute in health and social care and among domiciliary care workers, 56 per cent of whom now work on zero-hours contracts. As Shirley puts it: "It definitely has an impact on the care we provide. We look after lots of patients with dementia and caring for them means being positive around them but since we were all put on these contracts everyone is worried and has started looking for other jobs and that rubs off on patients".

In the current climate, it is not hard to see why zero-hours contracts are an attractive proposition for employers. They allow for maximum flexibility to adapt to shifts in demand, they can facilitate better management of risk, they can reduce the costs of recruitment and training, and for a minority, they can be used as a means of avoiding particular employment obligations. They may even benefit a minority of employees who have the means to cope with an erratic income and place a high premium on choice and flexibility.

But it is clear that the benefits these contracts provide come at too high a price for the overwhelming majority of those employed on them. The government has acknowledged the need for reform and a review will report in the autumn. That review is unlikely to lead to an outright ban of zero-hours contracts. Nor is it a precursor to a much-needed agenda for promoting fair employment. But Shirley and thousands more like her across the UK, will be hoping that, at a minimum, the government recognises the indisputable case for introducing more stringent safeguards to provide greater certainty and security to those growing numbers working uncertainly on these contracts. 

Tesco is one of an ever-greater number of employees to use zero-hours contracts. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matthew Pennycook is MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee. He is PPS to John Healey. 

Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.