Employment contracts without a minimum number of guaranteed hours increased to 1.8m
The number of zero-hours contracts in use across the UK rose by about 100,000 last year, according to official figures.
The Office for National Statistics, said the number of employment contracts without a minimum number of guaranteed hours increased to 1.8m in the year to November, up from 1.7m in 2016.
Union leaders attacked the government for failing to help people in precarious jobs, where employers can cancel shifts at short notice and leave households scrambling for work. The latest figures buck a trend for the falling use of zero-hours contracts since they reached a peak of about 2.1m in May 2015.
Tim Roache, the general secretary of the trade union GMB, said: “The number of zero-hours contracts should be falling but they are in fact on the rise.
“These scandalous figures show Theresa May’s out-of-touch government is completely and utterly failing to tackle insecure work.”
However, economists said the latest figures showed the use of zero-hours contracts was beginning to plateau after having fallen in recent years. The change comes as a consequence of the lowest levels of unemployment in the UK since 1975, which should be giving workers greater power to demand better rights and pay.
Work through employment agencies and self-employment has levelled off in recent years, having boomed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Some employers have also moved away from using zero-hours contracts following scandals at firms such as Sports Direct.
Dan Tomlinson of the Resolution Foundation thinktank said that, despite inaction from the government, “the tightness of the labour market is doing their work for them”.
Tomlinson added: “Rather than having a policy helping people, the strong economy at the moment and labour market in rude health is helping to keep a lid on the increase in zero-hours contracts.”
According to the ONS, the proportion of contracts without any guaranteed hours as a percentage of all employment remained steady at 6% last year. Fewer people also told the government statisticians they were on such a contract, with the number in the UK dropping to 901,000 in the three months to December from 905,000 in the same period of 2016.
The ONS has two ways of monitoring the use of zero-hours contracts: asking businesses how many contracts they use; and asking workers what type of arrangement they have with their employer. Statisticians are scrapping the business survey because it uses a small sample of firms and has other failings.
Theresa May promised in February to give workers the right to request a more stable contract after the Taylor review of employment last year. The measures were criticised for not going far enough by the unions and the Labour party, which is calling for an outright ban.
People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be young, women, students or those in part-time employment. Although some like the potential flexibility, about a quarter of people want to work more hours, compared with only 7.3% of people in other forms of employment.
A survey from the TUC found more than half of workers on zero-hours contracts have had shifts cancelled less than 24 hours before they were due to begin.
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Zero-hour contracts are a licence to treat people like disposable labour and the government should ban them.”
Pressure on the retail industry from inflation and weak wage growth, causing a slowdown in high street spending, could have influenced companies to use more flexible working arrangements in recent months, according to John Philpott, director of the employment consultancy Jobs Economist.
“That might have offset any improvement in worker bargaining power [from low unemployment],” he said.