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Ian Brinkley
Economic Advisor
Ian Brinkley

Zero hours – can’t get no satisfaction?

Authors: Ian Brinkley Senior Economic Advisor

09 December 2015

If there is one subject in the labour market bound to generate strong reactions, it is zero hours contracts. The most recent CIPD report , which found that people on zero hours contracts were just as satisfied with their jobs as those on permanent contracts, has ben criticised by some, including the TUC . The CIPD has responded to this criticism by suggesting that this is shooting the messenger.

The TUC’s basic position is reasonable – it says that zero hours work for some but not all workers, and can in some cases lead to exploitation.   It would therefore be unfair to see the TUC stance as a knee-jerk reaction to an inconvenient fact. However, while the TUC is right to say the small sample size in the CIPD survey is grounds for caution, it is wrong to say that it invalidates the results.

The CIPD 2015 survey found that 65 per cent of people on zero hours contracts were satisfied with their job. UKCES commissioned a survey  at the end of 2013 which reported that 66 per cent were satisfied with their current job. The CIPD also conducted a survey in 2013  which found that 60 per cent said they were satisfied with their job. All these figures were similar to those in regular or permanent work. So we have at least three recent surveys asking the same question which have come up with similar results. The 2013 and 2015 CIPD surveys also show consistent responses on other questions on work-life balance and pressure at work.

However, we have to be very careful about what we are measuring.  The CIPD 2013 survey also asked about satisfaction with the contract. In 2013 about 45 per cent said they were satisfied with their contract, and 27 per cent were dissatisfied. So it would appear that zero hour contract workers are happier with what they do and how they are treated than with their contract status.  Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that people in regular jobs are going to much happier about their contract status than those on zero hours.

The UKCES survey also found that 54 per cent of people on zero hours contracts had taken them because they thought no regular jobs were available. One interpretation is that some people who reported satisfaction with the contract may have been doing so because they thought it was the best they could get rather than because it was what they wanted.

The CIPD and UKCEs reports tells us that a more nuanced approach to zero hours contracts is needed and the CIPD is right to argue that zero hours contracts have had an unfair press. The CIPD is also on strong ground when arguing that poor practice across all contracts should be addressed and that regular workers can suffer just as much from exploitation and poor working conditions as those on zero hours.

But it is also equally clear that many zero hours contract workers are not taking these sorts of jobs out of choice and satisfaction with the job and treatment at work is not the same as satisfaction with contract status. The aspiration to a full employment labour market needs to go beyond the aggregate numbers to ensure that the vast majority of  people on zero hours contracts are doing so by choice rather than because, for them, they represent the best the labour market has to offer.