With increasing numbers of individuals signing contracts with no fixed hours, are improving employment figures leaving something out?
Given the recession has seemed to contain more peaks and dips than a day at Alton Towers, the one ray of sunshine alighting on the economic landscape has been the government figures indicating that the number of people in employment last month reached 29.73 million – the highest employment levels have been since records began. Unfortunately, pricking this little bubble of good news are figures from the Office of Nation Statistics (ONS) which reveal that the number of individuals on contracts with no fixed hours has similarly crept up and has almost quadrupled in the last decade.
The number of people on so-called ‘zero hours’ contracts was just 55,000 in April to June 2005. Around the beginning of the banking crisis, these figures increased substantially – for the same period in 2008, the number of zero hours contracts were more than twice what they were just three years earlier. The last data-set in the ONS figures shows that by October to December 2012 the number of people on these terms had leapt to 200,000 – meaning that potentially 0.67% of the workforce had no guarantee of consistent paid work.
Perhaps more disturbingly, this trend seems to be aligned against female workers. Whilst pre-recession levels seemed to see the gender-allocation of zero hours contracts being fairly evenly split, the last couple of years have seen the scales regularly tipping toward the women’s side, with the October to December period in 2012 showing a disparity of 96,000 men on zero hour contracts to 104,000 women. It’s difficult to know whether this is a response to demand for flexible working hours, better enabling female professionals return to work after maternity leave, but it can’t be viewed as a positive trend when equality in the workforce is becoming more vital than ever.
Speaking on ITV, Sarah Veale, head of the equality and employment rights department of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), summed up the situation thusly: "It is a sign of desperation that people will take anything at the moment...we're not valuing people, we're just looking at them as industrial fodder."
Given the number of people officially under-employed, it’s hard to see this news as a positive for the UK. Whilst flexibility is definitely key in these financially unpredictable times, it is worth remembering that our economy is only strong when spending confidence is high. Robbing Peter to pay Paul by utilising minimal contract terms may only prolong a tricky situation still further.