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Employment experts divided over zero-hours contracts figures

The news that there are now 1.4 million UK workers on zero-hours contracts has brought a mixed reaction from business groups and employment lawyers.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures show that there are more than double the number of staff on the contracts than previously thought. The ONS themselves estimated the figure to be around 580,000 for the period between September and December 2013. 

CBI director for employment and skills Neil Carberry defended the use of the contracts, saying they "help people build careers." He added that to focus on numbers is to "miss the point", as zero-hours contracts are still a small part of the labour market.

"Of course we need to address bad practice, but arbitrary attacks on the existence of flexible contracts would cost jobs and damage growth," he said. 

Warwick Business School Professor of HR management Kim Hoque said the statistics might be a sign of a "structural shift" in the UK labour market, but some employers play the rules around zero-hours contracts to the detriment of workers. 

"There is evidence of some employers abusing the flexible nature of zero-hours contracts in order to reduce staff to small or zero-working hours, thereby circumventing the issue of redundancy pay," he said. 

Michael-Jon Andrews, employment lawyer with firm Barlow Robbins, said zero-hours contracts are "a difficult issue" for both workers and employees. He added that the calls to clampdown on the practice could be resisted by employers. 

“Many employers are concerned that there are likely to be additional costs of using alternatives to zero-hours contracts," he said. They have suggested that banning such contracts may lead them to engaging fewer staff.”