Council worker
Some council workers in the UK are employed on a zero-hours contract (Reuters)

There is widespread use among local UK councils of controversial zero-hours contracts or similar "casual" employment arrangements that leave people with no cast-iron guarantee of work each week.

According to Freedom of Information requests made by IBTimes UK, some councils employ several hundred workers to provide public services on contracts that have no fixed working hours arrangements.

Zero-hours contracts are currently under review by the government's business secretary, Vince Cable.

Contracts without set working hours can leave those on them with uncertainty over how much they will earn each week, making it difficult to budget. They are often deprived of certain employment rights, afforded to permanent staff, such as holiday and sick pay, unless the employer chooses to offer the benefits.

They can also be disruptive to the services provided.

Unison, one of the UK's biggest unions, said the use of zero-hours contracts in care services fuels "insecurity and low pay and causing high staff turnover in the sector. This has a detrimental impact on services and in turn on the elderly and vulnerable people who rely on them."

One of the biggest employers of zero-hours contracted staff was Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, with 2,759. Denbighshire County Council admitted it has 1,630 staff on zero-hours contracts.

Clackmannanshire Council has 476 staff on zero-hours contracts. Colchester Borough Council said it has 440 staff on zero-hours contracts, while Corby Borough Council has 151 it defines as casual.

St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council has 300 staff hired on a casual or relief basis. The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Council (LBBD) has 464 on zero-hours.

Midlothian Council has 335 people on zero-hours contracts and has a policy of reviewing these every six months. During the reviews process, the council assesses whether to move these contractors to a fixed-term or set working hours arrangement.

Teignbridge District Council hires 183 people on zero-hours contracts that "involve no regular pattern of work, and no commitment for any particular amount of work to be offered by the Council, nor accepted by the employee."

Cheltenham Borough Council has 238 "casual workers". Northumberland County Council has 83 staff on zero-hours arrangements and Warwick District Council said it has around 150 casuals "but this number varies greatly between those who work a bit more regularly and those who maybe only work occasionally".

'Flexible, Efficient, and Cost Effective'

Kingston Borough Council hires 719 people directly on a "casual" basis to provide its care services, such as residential care for older people including those with dementia, residential care and supported living projects for adults with learning disabilities, and domiciliary care, and mobile meals.

"In many cases this requires 24 hour staffing, Monday to Sunday. To ensure continuity of care and service provision to vulnerable people and to ensure regulatory requirements are met, the council maintains a register of individuals willing to accept casual assignments, often at short notice, to cover both planned and unplanned absences of permanent staff," said Kingston council's response to an information request.

"It is more flexible, efficient, and cost effective to provide cover in this way than through other means, and the in-house 'staff bank' will normally be the first choice over external agency workers for these reasons. It should be noted that in many cases permanent care staff are also registered for separate casual work with the council and this accounts for at least 20% of the staff registered."

Zero-Hours Contracts Denial

Kingston denied it was using zero-hours contracts, even though the workings of its casual system are similar.

"Legally casual workers are not employees. Use of the term 'zero-hours contract' implies both an employment relationship and a commitment by both parties which does not exist under the arrangements used by the council and it is important to note the distinction," said the council.

"In interpreting the figure [it is] most important to note that there is no obligation on the council to offer casual assignments to those registered for this, and no obligation at all on the individuals registered to accept any casual assignment offered.

"The figures show only the staff registered and, in practice, many of those registered may not work at all, or may only work very little, in any given period (our informed estimate is that no more than two thirds of the staff registered will work in any given month)."

Preston Council has 175 people "on the books who had been appointed to various casual pools across the authority - mainly in the leisure field (assistants, coaches, instructors etc.)"

However, Preston council denies that these people are on a zero-hours contract.

"The true definition of a zero-hours contract relates to the situation where a worker is not guaranteed work but has to be available for work at certain times and is obliged to work any hours that are offered," said the council.

"The council does not employ anyone on this basis and has no intention of doing so. This contrasts with the situation where a worker is not guaranteed a set number of hours of work, does not have to be available at specified times and can choose whether or not they wish to accept the hours offered.

"In this situation individuals are usually offered a place on a pool and there is no obligation on either the Council to offer hours of work or for the workers to accept any hours they are offered. At Preston we refer to this as casual employment, but are aware that such arrangements are often confused with zero-hours contracts."

Highland Council said it did not know how many people it employed on zero-hours contracts.

"Due to the current system of recoding contracts, we are unable to identify the actual number of staff on zero-hours contracts. The Council has and does use zero-hours contracts for certain posts eg Social Care Worker," said the council.

Many of the councils responding to IBTimes UK's information requests said they do not have any staff on zero-hours contracts.

A Million Britons on Zero-Hours

There are at least one million people in Britain employed on controversial zero-hours contracts, according to a survey of employers, a number 750,000 people higher than the official estimate.

Over 1,000 employers were polled by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which also found that only 14% of those on the contracts felt they were not given a sufficient amount of working hours each week.

Zero-hours contracts have grabbed headlines over the last month after well-known companies, such as Sports Direct and Buckingham Palace, were revealed to be employers using them. At Sports Direct, 90% of the workforce is on a zero-hours contract.

"The vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain," said Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison trade union.

"Not knowing from week-to-week what money you have coming in to buy food and pay your bills is extremely nerve-wracking. Having your working hours varied at short notice is also stressful and it makes planning, childcare arrangements and budgeting hard."
Are you employed by a local council on a zero-hours contract or similar arrangement? Does it work for you? Or do you have concerns about your working arrangement?

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