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Policymakers need to stop ignoring the facts and tackle insecure work

Published date
Insecure work soared after the last financial crisis as employers offered many workers only temporary, zero - or short-hours contracts. But more than a decade on since the bank-led crash, policymakers have failed to introduced measures to tackle it.

Those who resist labour market reform tend to ignore, and even deny, these three facts about insecure work: 

  • It affects a significant number of workers. 

  • It only offers flexibility to the employer – not the worker. 

  • Workers do not want these contracts. 

The TUC’s new Insecure work report establishes these facts and several others in a detailed analysis of those who find themselves on zero-hours contracts (ZHCs), in temporary or seasonal jobs or are self-employed workers earning less than the national minimum wage. 

Fact 1: Insecure work is widespread 

Sometimes insecure work can be portrayed as something limited to a small number of young workers in the so-called gig economy working as delivery riders. 

But TUC analysis of official statistics shows that it is widespread. One worker in nine, some 3.6 million people are in insecure work. 

They are spread across the country with particular high proportions of workers in insecure work in Wales (13.4 per cent) and in Northern Ireland (12.2 per cent). 

Who is in insecure work? 

Zero-hours contract workers (excluding the self-employed and those falling in the categories below) 


Other insecure work - including agency, casual, seasonal and other workers, but not those on fixed-term contracts 


Low-paid self-employed (earning an hourly rate less than the minimum wage) 


TUC estimate of insecure work 


Proportion in insecure work 


Source: Labour Force Survey and Family Resources Survey. The total number in ‘insecure work’ includes (1) agency, casual, seasonal and other workers, but not those on fixed – term contracts, (2) workers whose primary job is a zero-hours contract, (3) self-employed workers who are paid less than the minimum wage. 

Nearly one in four (23.1 per cent) of those in elementary occupations including security guards, taxi drivers and shop assistants are in insecure work.  

It is the same for more than one in five (21.1 per cent) of those who are process, plant and machine operatives. 

Very large numbers of those in the skilled trades and caring, leisure and other service roles are also in precarious employment. 

Fact 2: It only offers flexibility to the employer 

The argument made by those who support allowing employers to use insecure working arrangements is that they can offer two-way flexibility

The worker gets to fit their work around their other commitments. The employer can have staff in for the hours they need them.  

But this overlooks both many workers’ experiences of the jobs market. 

One of the most egregious examples of insecure work is the zero-hours contract where employers are under no obligation to offer work. 

Workers are increasingly finding that shifts are being offered – and cancelled – at less than a day’s notice. 

Polling for the TUC shows that 84 per cent of zero-hours workers have been offered shifts with such little notice, while more than two-thirds (69 per cent) have suffered short-notice cancellations. 


This is an increase on 2017 when nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of zero-hours workers reported being offered work at less than 24 hours' notice. And just over half (51 per cent) had had shifts cancelled at less than 24 hours' notice.

This suggests an increased willingness among employers to force workers to shoulder the risks of changes in demand. 

Such practices make it extremely hard for workers to budget, sort childcare or other responsibilities or to plan their private lives, if arrangements must be dropped at the last minute. 

Insecure workers also often miss out on a range of flexible working rights, like the right to request flexible working and parental leave, because they are not “employees” under current employment law. So they don’t have access to truly flexible work. 

Fact 3: Workers do not want these contracts 

It is often claimed that workers themselves like insecure working arrangements such as zero-hours contracts. 

But our data shows otherwise.  

Some 45 per cent of respondents in a poll of 2,523 workers conducted by for the TUC said that zero-hours work being the only work available was the most important reason for them being on such contracts. Meanwhile, 16 per cent said it was the typical contract in their line of work.  


Just 9 per cent cited work-life balance as the most important reason. 

What needs to happen? 

The government has long claimed it wants to take action. Reviews have been commissioned and new laws promised. But so far little has happened. 

There is a strong risk that, without action, this pandemic could see a repeat of past recessions where rising unemployment sees a deterioration in pay and conditions. 

The TUC believes a new employment bill is urgently needed with these measures at its centre: 

  • The abolition of zero hours contracts by giving workers the right to a contract that reflects their regular hours, at least four weeks’ notice of shifts and compensation for cancelled shifts. 

  • Genuine two-way flexibility by giving workers a default right to work flexibly from the first day in the job, and all jobs to be advertised as flexible. 

  • Greater union access to workplaces and stronger rights to establish collective bargaining so unions can negotiate secure working conditions. 

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