Highly skilled Umbrella Company Employees can generally take it for granted that once they have secured a contract they will be working productively on a project and getting paid for it; however, for thousands of UK workers, the picture is very different: there has been a massive increase in the use of ‘zero hours’ contracts amongst UK companies, which keep staff on standby with no guarantee of either work or income.

The Office for National Statistics has recently discovered that the number of workers hired on these contracts almost doubled last year to reach 200,000. Almost one-quarter of UK employers use these contracts, which government guidelines suggest should be reserved for ‘piece work’ or ‘on call’ work. This means that employers are not legally obliged to provide regular, paid work and will only draw on these workers as and when needed.

Opinions about the ethical status of such contracts differ, however. They have traditionally been popular with retailers; however, Sarah Veale, who heads the TUC’s equality and human rights department, said: “It is a sign of desperation that people will take anything at the moment. We’re not valuing people, we’re just looking at them as industrial fodder.”

REC chief executive Kevin Green disagrees: he believes the increase in zero hours contracts has helped to keep unemployment down and enabled struggling businesses to stay afloat by keeping staff costs down. He commented: “You could be saying this is keeping 200,000 people in work who may not have been in work if it wasn’t for these sorts of contracts.”

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