The number of people on zero-hours contracts leaped in the final quarter of 2015 - but it's not why you think

Emma Haslett
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Sports Direct has been criticised for putting large numbers of workers on zero-hours contracts (Source: Getty)

Oh dear. The government may be doing everything in its power to rid the UK of those pesky zero-hours contracts, but it seems its efforts aren't working: the number of employees on the contracts jumped by 15 per cent in the final quarter of last year, new figures have shown. But before you grab your pitchfork, take note: the reason behind the rise isn't completely clear...

A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the number of people on zero-hours contracts rose 15 per cent to 801,000 in October, November and December last year - up from 697,000 the year before.

But the ONS pointed out the rise isn't necessarily because of a sudden leap in the number of people on the contracts. It could actually be because people recognise what the term "zero-hours contract" actually means.

To wit: more than half of the increase in people on the contracts had been in their job for more than a year, the ONS said.

"This could reflect either increased recognition or people moving on to a “zero-hours contract” with the same employer."

It added that the number of people on the contracts for less than a year had also risen - but again: "This could have been due either to a rise in the prevalence of zero-hours contracts or to increased awareness of the terms of the contract when people start work." Who knows...

Zero-hours contracts, which don't guarantee staff a certain number of hours' work, came under heavy scrutiny during last year's election campaigning, when the likes of Sports Direct and Amazon were criticised for putting vast numbers of warehouse workers on them.

But others have argued they can be pretty handy: last year Institute of Directors chief economist James Sproule argued they can be a "useful factor in keeping unemployment down during the recession".

"In difficult times, they enable businesses to hold onto staff," he wrote.

"Subsequently, flexibility in the labour market, including the growth in self-employment and slow wage growth, has meant the private sector could create jobs at a faster rate than many predicted."

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