Firm foundations

Understanding why employers use flexible contracts

At the end of 2023, more than one-in-eight (13 per cent) employees in UK were working on some form of flexible contract that can be viewed as ‘precarious’, accounting for 3.8 million workers nationwide. From variable-hours and zero-hours contracts to temporary work such as casual, seasonal or short-term employment, flexible contracts often entail considerable uncertainty for workers over hours or the length of employment, and a fluctuating income too. And while some workers undoubtedly enjoy the flexibility these contract types offer, for many, they come with real costs, impacting living standards, work-life balance and even health.

Although there is a growing body of research on the impact of flexible contracts on workers, there is far less understanding about what drives employers to hire staff on such terms. In this briefing note – the first in a two-year research programme on precarious work, supported by Unbound Philanthropy – we seek to redress this by drawing on a survey of more than 750 employers fielded in April 2024 exploring why they use flexible contracts, and what might reduce their reliance on such contracts in the years to come.