How many Londoners are on zero-hours contracts?

by Dave Hill

Labour Party leader and London MP Jeremy Corbyn today criticised companies that use temporary and short term employment contracts, describing these as a “source of continuous worry and insecurity for millions of people”. His contribution to the debate about the so-called “gig economy”, was made at the Trades Union Congress, where he said that it denies “basic protections” to both workers and customers rather than being a force of modernity and innovation.

Corbyn’s words went down well with a supportive audience. But there are other angles on the question. So-called “zero hours” contracts are increasing in the UK in part because some people on such contracts find they suit them.

Uber drivers can be good examples of this. I wrote about one last summer, a Sikh Brexiter from Leyton, who topped up his earnings as a landlord by picking up fares in his spare time. More recently, another described to me how he makes most of his money from subcontracting parts of a parcel delivery service that is itself subcontracted to him. While others work for him, he works for himself, ubering Londoners across the city.

Jobs that aren’t regular or secure are, of course, not novel in London. Deliveroo may be new, but one of my first gigs in London in the late 1970s was for a second hand record shop in Notting Hill, which gave me no idea at all if and when my services would be required again. I didn’t like their attitude and didn’t stick with them for long.

However you look at it, such arrangements are now on the increase in the capital. Call it naked exploitation or call it portfolio self-employment, it’s definitely growing and the range of attitudes to it means that any further regulation of it needs to be thought about with care.

Below are some estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of the numbers of people on zero hours contracts in London. They are calculated from responses to the Labour Force Survey for the last six years. People were offered “zero hours” as an option for describing their own circumstances.

The ONS points out that the size of the increase in 2013 could well be due to the “zero hours” becoming more widely debated during that year. Previously, people who were on such contracts might not have realised that the term described their situations.

2010 – 14,000 (0.4%)

2011 – 19,000 (0.5%)

2012 – 23,000 (0.8%)

2013 – 72,000 (1.7%)

2014 – 77,000 (1.8%)

2015 – 95,000 (2.1%)

2016 – 119,000 (2.6%)

Those are pretty small numbers in the greater scheme of things, but they are clearly growing. Interestingly, the percentages for each year are very slightly lower than their equivalents for the UK as a whole.

In July, Matthew Taylor produced recommendations for the government which tried to balance flexibility with rights in a way that helped both employers and workers. It received mixed reviews. But zero hours is that sort of issue, and isn’t going away. It would be good to know more about how it plays out in the capital.

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