The latest Office for National Statistics figures show a steep rise in the number of care workers on zero-hours contracts. In 2015, the number stood at roughly one in ten. It is now one in seven.
Unemployment steady but employment insecure
These figures follow the news that in the three months up to August, UK unemployment remained steady at 4.9%. This is close to being the lowest it has been in 11 years. But of course, as with any statistics, a lot depends on how the data is interpreted. Government critics say that the headline figures of unemployment hide the true picture of an increasingly unstable employment landscape.
A sharp rise in self-employment (now 15% of all people in work) is just one side of it. Concerns have been raised about the lack of guaranteed pensions and income protection.
But the most startling trend is the 20% rise in the number of zero-hours workers employed in the UK. This has now reached over 900,000 people. With unstable hours and no sick pay, trade unions fear that despite stable employment levels, employment itself is increasingly insecure.
Care workers missing out
In a week where Labour politicians were quick to point out that the words NHS, mental health and social care were all noticeably absent from Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement, the growing prevalence of zero-hours contracts among care workers gives even more grounds for concern.
Trade unions point out that within the care sector, the issues run deeper than just a lack of regular working hours. Unison highlight that often hourly pay drops below the national living wage, as many care workers are only paid for the actual time they spend caring for their clients. Money is not paid for time taken to travel between appointments.
Abuse of minimum wage laws is seen as endemic within the care sector. Indeed, 130 care firms are currently under HMRC investigation for such abuses. In the two years up to March 2016, HMRC discovered that employees had lost close to £1m in pay because of breaches of minimum wage law.
New Zealand’s example
The wider issue of zero-hours contracts continues to cause concern with union leaders who are urging the government to follow the example set by the New Zealand government. Since April, employers in New Zealand have been forced to guarantee employees a minimum number of weekly hours and ensure that workers do not face repercussions if they refuse the offer of extra hours.
Could ‘minimum hours’ contracts be the answer to creating a little more security to the jobs market?