Conditions of Work and Employment Series No. 101

Zero-Hours Work in the United Kingdom

In this report, we provide a detailed study of zero-hours work in the United Kingdom. An initial section defines zero-hours work, emphasising key characteristics as well as overlaps between zero-hours work and other casual work arrangements, and draws parallels both with historic instances of on-demand work and current experiences of ‘if and when’ contracts in the Republic of Ireland.

Section two presents the most recent available data on the prevalence and key characteristics of zerohours workers and employers, explaining the evolution of such work arrangements as well as the technical issues which make measuring the phenomenon through official labour market statistics particularly difficult.

Section three complements the empirical evidence with an analysis of the effects of zero-hours work for workers, employers, and society more broadly. Our focus is not limited to the legal situation of those working under such arrangements, but also includes questions of social security entitlements, and wider implications such as business flexibility, cost savings, and productivity growth.

As the fourth section explains, a growing awareness of the growth of zero-hours contracts from 2011 onwards brought about a marked increase in public discussion of the phenomenon, leading eventually to (limited) legislative intervention. We explore the positions taken by the social partners, before analysing historical as well as recent legislative responses, and setting out a case study of Parliament’s response to a particularly egregious instance of labour standards violations in warehouses operated by the sports equipment chain Sports Direct.

A brief concluding section, finally, turns to a series of policy recommendations and broader considerations, with a view to finding a model in which (some of) the flexibility of zero-hours work arrangements might be preserved, without however continuing to pose a real threat to decent working conditions in the United Kingdom’s labour market.