During his speech the Liberal Party Conference yesterday, business secretary Vince Cable announced a consultation to tackle abuses of zero-hours contracts, although he stopped short of an outright ban. He particularly wishes to bring to an end arrangements under which an employer may offer no guarantee of paid work yet can insist that workers cannot work for anyone else.

Estimates of how many workers are employed on these contracts vary widely, with the ONS claiming that around 250,000 are or will be on them while the CIPD suggests that the figure is closer to one million. The trade union Unite places the figure as high as 5.5 million.

While abuses are clearly to be condemned and eradicated, many industry experts insist that zero-hours contracts should not be characterised in toto as exploitative. Some well-paid professionals in the UK’s contracting community, for example, favour zero-hours arrangements in order to offer themselves and their clients flexibility, and they certainly cannot be designated as vulnerable, low-paid workers.

Responding to Mr Cable’s speech, REC CEO Kevin Green insisted that it was wrong to characterise zero-hours contracts as “inherently wrong or exploitative”. He continued: “When managed well, with clear communication between worker and hirer, zero-hours contracts can benefit the business and the individual. The last thing that the jobs market needs is more regulation, which adds cost and complexity to employment, creates uncertainty for employers and could slow the pace of economic recovery. The UK’s flexible labour market is the envy of the world and despite what some commentators want to suggest, is a strength rather than a weakness.”

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