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Large rise in number of zero-hour contracts

The number of workers on contracts with no guarantee of regular hours or pay doubled to 200,000 during the last six months of 2012, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.

The number of 'zero-hours' contracts has risen sharply in recent years, particularly in the retail and hospital industries. They are seen as a cost-effective way of meeting short-term staffing needs.

The contracts are now used by nearly a quarter of all UK employers, including some of the UK's largest firms. They typically allow firms to employ staff - often in low-paid jobs - who are 'on-call'. In turn, employees are able to turn down hours and work at other jobs.

The data casts a shadow on recent ONS figures that showed the number of people in employment had risen to 29.73 million during the final quarter of 2012 - the highest level since records began.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) says that zero-hours contracts can help solve fluctuating staffing needs but that they need 'careful management.'

While zero-hour contacts may suit workers who want occasional earnings, the unpredictable hours may not suit everyone, it says.
Some employment and trade organisations have criticised the use of such contracts for taking advantage of employees.

ACAS guidance reads: "Generally, as an employer, you are not obliged to offer work to workers on zero-hours contracts - but nor are they obliged to accept any work you offer.

"It's important to be aware of the provisions of the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which state that workers on 'stand-by time', 'on-call time' and 'downtime' must still be paid the National Minimum Wage if they are at their place of work and required to be there.

"Similarly, such time is likely to count as 'working time' under the Working Time Regulations if the worker is required to be on-call at the place of work. This means that it's against the law to ask employees to 'clock off' during quiet periods but still remain on the premises."