Are 1 in 5 social care workers on zero-hours contracts?

5 July 2013

"Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, said the figures meant that about 20 per cent of the social care workforce are employed on a zero hours basis."

The Independent, 4 July 2013

This year the Labour Force Survey estimated that around 200,000 people in the UK were employed on a zero-hours contract. And yet, according to Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham recent figures have put the number of people on these types of contracts at 307,000.

How do we solve this riddle?

What do we mean by zero-hours contracts?

According to the Citizens' Advice Bureau, workers on zero-hours contracts are not told by their employer how many hours they will be required to work, but instead they are instructed to make themselves available to work whenever asked. 

Companies have been using these types of contracts to meet short-term staffing needs while avoiding the need to pay salaries in quiet periods and to spend money on the likes of employee benefits or redundancy pay. As the House of Commons Library notes, this has raised a number of issues, including "whether persons working under such contracts are classed as "employees" or "workers" and whether the employer is required to pay workers whilst they are on-call."

For the period October to December 2012, the average hourly pay for an employee on a zero-hours contract was estimated in the Labour Force Survey to be £9.12. 

Zero-hours contracts in the social care sector

New figures released by Skills for Care - a charity working with social care employers and funded by the Department of Health - have claimed that over 300,000 social care workers are employed on zero-hours contracts.

This emerged on 20 June, when Care Minister Norman Lamb told the Commons in a written reply that 307,000 workers in the care sector in England are employed on a zero-hour contract basis.

Why are these figures different?

How can we explain the discrepancy between official statistics showing 200,000 individuals on zero-hours contracts in the UK, and social care workforce figures showing a much higher number in this sector alone?

Ian Brickley from the Work Foundation has pointed out that Labour Force Survey estimates are entirely dependent on the responses provided by individuals taking the survey. Some people, he says, may not be aware that theirs is a zero-hours contract:

"The 2011 Labour Force Survey gives respondents a choice of flexible working arrangements to describe how they work, which includes zero hours contracts — but also includes on-call working. The ONS thinks that most people know what the various categories mean and the survey guidance says that if someone is uncertain, they are coded either to the "on-call" category or as not working flexibly."

Crucially, he adds:

"In 2011 there were another 440,000 people doing on-call working — the most obvious examples being hospital doctors and live-in carers."

How do carers compare to the rest of the workforce?

According to the Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey, 0.7% of the national workforce is employed on zero-hours contracts, suggesting that if Skills for Care's figures are correct, the social care sector is well above average in this respect.

So why are they so prevalent for care workers?

When looking at the peculiarities of care work in 2011, the Low Pay Commission also found that "local authorities often commissioned home care on the basis of payment for visit contact time only."

The UK Homecare Association, in particular, told the Commission that "survey data showed an increase in both 15-minute and 30-minute visits between 2009 and 2010, but a decrease in 60-minute visits." They added that "payment for visit contact time put pressure on wage costs and providers in turn frequently paid their staff on a visit time basis."

Looking at the workforce as a whole, we can also see from the ONS data that the number of individuals on zero-hours contracts is also on the increase.

The Labour Force Survey has also revealed that the average number of hours worked in a week by people on zero-hours contracts has dropped from 30 in 1998 to 21 in 2012.

A fifth of carers on zero-hours contracts?

Commenting on these figures, the Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said that 20% of the social care workforce are now employed on this basis.

The latest workforce census in the social care sector was carried out in 2012 by Skills for Care.

It estimated that the number of people employed in the adult social care sector in England in 2011 was 1.63 million, meaning that if just over 300,000 are employed on a zero-hours basis, these people would account for around 18.8% of the total.

Where are the "zero-hours" social care workers?

Here we have mapped the zero-hours workers by region, based on the Skills for Care data:


Flickr image courtesy of WorldSkills

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