The number of workers on zero-hours contracts could be one million – four times as high as official estimates, according to new research.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said its survey of 1,000 employers showed one in five employed at least one person on a zero-hours contract, under which staff are not guaranteed work from one week to the next.
Firms in the voluntary and public sectors as well as the hotel, leisure and catering industries were more likely to use zero-hours contracts.
Ray Gray, regional officer for Unison said: “We have been concerned about this for some time because it leaves you at the beck and call of employers.”
He said the contracts were “not really the ideal way to employ somebody.”
Separate research among almost 150 zero-hours contract workers revealed only 14 per cent said their employer failed to give them enough hours to have a basic standard of living. The workers polled averaged just under 20 hours a week and were most likely to be aged between 18 and 24 or over 55.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said last week that 250,000 people in the UK were on zero-hours contracts at the end of last year, 50,000 more than a previous estimate because of a change in the way the figures are calculated, although unions believe this is a huge under-estimate.
Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, said: “Zero-hours contracts are a hot topic and our research suggests they are being used more commonly than the ONS figures would imply. However, the assumption that all zero-hours contracts are bad and the suggestion from some quarters that they should be banned should be questioned.
“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. And this needs to consider both the advantages and disadvantages in practice for businesses and employees.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable has ordered a review of the controversial contracts, used by employers ranging from pubs and High Street retailers, to the NHS and even Buckingham Palace.
He said: “Whilst it’s important our workforce remains flexible, it is equally important that it is treated fairly. This is why I have asked my officials to undertake some work over the summer to better understand how this type of contract is working in practice today.”
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “Not knowing from week to week what money you have coming in to buy food and pay your bills is extremely nerve-wracking.”