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 Zero-hours contracts are the final expression of Britain’s “flexible” labour market. Deregulate the workforce, free up firms to hire and fire, and they are going to be less burdened by fixed costs, leaner and more competitive – and generate more jobs. So went the post-Thatcherite consensus.

So now they have at least 697,000 workers in the economy who don’t know how plenty of hours they’re going to be working from week to the next, or sometimes even day to the next. In theory, they might be footloose and fancy-free – using their spare time to launch a dotcom startup or gig with a band. Yet these workers, plenty of of whom are juggling over zero-hours contract, according to the ONS (which explains why there's one.8m of them) fit exactly the characteristics of the groups that usually do worst out of the labour market.


Over half of them are ladies – 55%, compared with 47% of the workforce as a whole; and over a third of them are aged 16–24, compared with 12% of the wider workforce. If zero-hours working were a lifestyle choice, surely more of the workforce’s traditional winners would be doing it?


There’s a profound human cost here, of the kind detailed over the past decade by London Citizens’ living-wage campaign, which has been as much about the casualisation of jobs as poverty pay; but there’s as well as a cost for the wider economy. These easy-come-easy-go workers are highly unlikely to build up the work skills they will need to take them through life; and their employers have tiny incentive to invest in training and equipping them.


Yet building up Britain’s “human capital” is critical to boosting our flagging productivity, and ensuring the economy can grow in the long-term, at a time when some specialists fear they may be facing a period of stagnation. Our short-termist employers may need to lose a bit in efficiency, for all of us to gain in economic progress – and who knows, by offering their staff predictability and security, they may find they make gains in loyalty and productivity .

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