Thousands of graduates are complaining they are being ripped off by so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts, where employers expect them to be available for shifts – but have no obligation to give them any work at all.

The contracts have become especially common in low-paid jobs in the retail and hospitality industries, where many graduates have found themselves working as they struggle to secure a well-paid graduate role where their degree is valued. 

And fears are growing that Britain is developing a generation of “precarious” young workers, doing part-time or casual work because they can’t find permanent, full-time work. In these roles, they often find themselves with low pay, few rights, little protection – and no stability.

One young man, working on a zero-hours contract at McDonald’s, told Newsnight that he has different hours from one week to the next – and is sometimes given his shifts late on Sunday night for Monday morning. He said:

“Some weeks you’ll get more hours than you can work, on days that you can’t work – and some weeks you’ll be desperately looking for extra shifts because you’ve got no money. The only people who have contracted hours are the managers who are salaried – the senior ones.

“There is no law preventing zero hours contracts, but there should be. They’re not fair – they’re not right. They’re exploitative. The free market is for companies, not for us. I’m not free.”

Yet McDonald’s insisted that said the majority of their staff are employed on an hourly basis, telling Newsnight:

“This suits the majority of our employees, since they are looking for shift patterns which give them flexibility to fit paid work around study, childcare and other commitments.”

It seems that the growth of these contracts is connected to the recession, as employers seek new ways to take on staff cheaply without any commitment.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of people on zero hours contracts has more than doubled since 2005 – and now 161,000 people are employed in zero-hours jobs. Usually, they are classed under by data collectors as ’employed’ – even if they are doing only one or two hours’ work a week.

As the latest unemployment figures – released last week – looked suspiciously good, serious questions were being asked about the type of work that people are doing. The Evening Standard’s business editor James Ashton suggested that the true picture of employment in Britain was being obscured by the number people who are part-time or self-employed. He wrote:

“Falling unemployment, now at the lowest level in a year, doesn’t tally with a weakening economy… Economists talk about the “casualisation of the workforce”, which makes the trend sound like a permanent dress-down Friday, but it is far more serious than that…

“All the talk of rebalancing the economy has given way to fashioning a recovery at all costs. If that means jobs of any sort, fine… But part-time pay means part-time spending – hardly enough to get tills ringing for struggling retailers, who are, of course, some of the biggest employers of part-time labour…

“A recent analysis by my colleague, the economist David Blanchflower, writing in The Independent, found that the swelling ranks of the self-employed are not necessarily good news either. You might think the extra 200,000 people working for themselves represents a rebirth of the entrepreneurial spirit that Britain is craving. However, many are forcibly self-employed after being made redundant.

“One-third of that figure is part-time, mainly women, engaged in paid chores such as cleaning and childcare. Instead of striking out on their own, it looks as though they are being forced to take on menial, low- paid work in lieu of anything better. Once again, it is the quality of the job that comes under scrutiny rather than the size of the overall workforce.”

For employers, zero-hours contracts offer the best of both worlds: immediate access to labour should they need it – but no obligation to use those workers should they find they don’t. But to Graduate Fog – and many employees – zero-hours contracts seem to be a very raw deal indeed.


Or been offered one, but declined? What do you think of this kind of arrangement? Is it fair that employees are expected to be available for shifts – but that their employer has no responsibility to give them any work at all? Should zero-hours contracts be made illegal? Or is some work better than none?

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