As Labour MPs lined up at a Westminster Hall debate this week to call for a crackdown on the use of zero hour contracts, new figures have emerged showing a fifth of the social care workforce are employed on a zero hours basis.
Care minister Norman Lamb, in a written reply to the Commons, confirmed that 307,000 people are employed on zero hours contracts in the social care sector alone.
The figure, gathered by Skills for Care from Department of Health statistics, adds to a growing body of evidence that zero hours contracts – work agreements that fail to guarantee employees a set number of hours per week – are far more ubiquitous than previously thought.
Until now, the only official estimate of the total number of people on zero hour contracts has been the Office for National Statistics’ figure of 200,000, based on the Labour Force Survey.
Moved by Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central, the Westminster Hall debate revealed that people employed on zero hours contracts earn 40% less than those in fixed hours employment.
Zero hours contracts have traditionally been employed in the hospitality and leisure sectors, but they are increasingly being used in the health, social care and further education sectors.
“The use of zero hours contracts in NHS hospitals has risen sharply in the last two years,” Elliot said. “Figures uncovered through a Freedom of Information request made by my office found that tens of thousands of NHS staff, including thousands of nurses and midwives, are held on zero hours contracts, which guarantee no minimum hours, and therefore no minimum pay.”
Out of 88 NHS hospitals for which data is available, 77 reported employing staff on zero hours contracts, and the top ten trusts have over 10,000 employees on zero hours contracts between them.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, who in April said Labour should pledge to ban “zero hours contracts” at the next election, told the Independent: “Good care cannot be provided on a zero hours basis and a wing and a prayer. How can people who don’t themselves have the security of knowing what they will earn from week to week pass on a sense of security to others?”
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, told the same newspaper: “Social care is not the only sector to be experiencing high levels of zero hours contracts – higher education, legal services and journalism all have large numbers of people working on these insecure terms and conditions.
“This rise in zero hours working is bad for employees and also for service users, many of whom are vulnerable adults. People want to see the same person whether it’s their regular carer or college tutor – something that is severely hindered by zero hour contracts. Secure employment would allow staff to concentrate more on their jobs instead of having to worry from one to day to the next whether they will have any work or money to pay for food and bills.”
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