Young workers are most likely to be trapped by controversial zero-hours contracts, according to new evidence. The finding was made as it emerged that the total number of people employed in the UK under these conditions – where low-paid, part-time workers have no guaranteed shifts – could be four times higher than previous official estimates made only last week.

The survey of 1,000 employers – by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) – found that people employed on a zero-hours contract were twice as likely to be either aged 18 to 24 or over 55 than any other age group.

The new data also suggests that a million workers could be on a zero-hours contract – four times the previous estimate of 250,000 by the Office for National Statistics, made only last week. And although these contracts may work well for employers, employees tell a different story. Of the 148 zero-hours workers interviewed in addition to the survey, one in seven felt that their employer gave them insufficient hours to provide a basic standard of living. On average, they said they worked just 19.5 hours per week.

Experts admitted that the findings are worrying – although CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese claimed the mis-match between the two sets of figures could be down to a lack of precision in the measurement – as well as confusion over definitions. He also claimed that zero-hours contracts can be ‘positive’ in some cases:

“I think even sometimes employers themselves are not fully clear on the absolute nature of their contracts and whether it is genuinely zero hours.

“There does need to be a closer look at what is meant by a zero-hours contract, the different forms that they take, and clearer guidance on what good and bad practice in their use looks like.

“Zero-hours contracts, used appropriately, can provide flexibility for employers and employees and can play a positive role in creating more flexible working opportunities.

“However, for some this may be a significant disadvantage where they need more certainty in their working hours and earnings… Zero-hours contracts cannot be used simply to avoid an employer’s responsibilities to its employees.”

Graduate Fog suspects that the fact that young workers are disproportionately at risk of signing these exploitative contracts is due to the industries and job types where these contracts are most common – including retail, hotel, leisure, catering, social care and the voluntary sector. But there was some good news. Business secretary Vince Cable followed Nick Clegg’s pledge last week to investigate the practice, saying:

“Whilst it’s important our workforce remains flexible, it is equally important it is treated fairly.”

Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, also voiced strong objection to zero-hours contracts, saying:

“The fact that zero-hours contracts have increased across the economy is further evidence of how tough it can be for people at work under this Government. People are being made to feel grateful for any kind of employment regardless of the pay, terms and conditions.”

And Graduate Fog thinks there could be further reasons why the discovery of the scale of this practice is a good thing. Could it help to explain the baffling mismatch between apparently cheerful reports showing that unemployment is falling – and the vast amount of anecdotal evidence that proves many of you are still struggling to scrape by? If many of those counted as ’employed’ in fact have no guaranteed hours and have no hope of supporting themselves on what they are earning, should they really be counted as ’employed’ at all?

What do you think – could the widespread use of zero-hours contracts help to explain why so many young people are still struggling financially, despite apparent evidence that unemployment is falling? If you’re on a zero-hours contract, are you concerned that the reality of your situation isn’t being reflected properly in the official employment statistics we see reported in the press?

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