Four-and-a-half million people in England and Wales are in insecure work, this is according to research by Citizens Advice, which has advised too much emphasis on boosting pay risks ignoring the problem of unpredictable incomes for many households.

The charity brought to light the debt problems and difficulties accessing in-work benefits for the millions of people who do not have fixed, regular working hours. Its analysis of official figures published on Monday has shown more than 2.3 million people are working variable shift patterns, a further 1.1 million are on temporary contracts and 800,000 are on either zero-hour or agency contracts.

Zero hours contracts, which are commonly used in the retail industry and do not guarantee employees any work from week to week, have been back in the spotlight this month after the billionaire Sports Direct founder, Mike Ashley, admitted his company had broken the law by failing to pay off the national minimum wage. Ashley’s admission last week to MPs investigating his firm’s treatment of its workers, confirmed the findings of a Guardian investigation last year in which undercover reporters uncovered how the company was paying staff less than the legal minimum and subjected them to a harsh regime of surveillance and financial penalties for lateness.

Citizens Advice alerted that many of the 4.5 million people it classes as being in insecure work – equivalent to roughly 14{06aeb1921e0b802d2bd9c766bc98fb11cc6a46c2b0593ed9c88a0e29cf417a34} of the working population – do not have regular hours or expected shifts and so struggle to manage their budgets or plan for the future. “While for some people working shifts or temporary contracts may provide the flexibility they want, many others struggle to balance the books in the face of such insecure employment,” said the Citizens Advice chief executive, Gillian Guy.

The charity embraced recent changes to boost working people’s income – such as the introduction of the  “national minimum wage” and raising the personal tax allowance threshold – but it wants to see those urgently complemented by efforts to improve people’s security at work. “Income security is the overlooked piece of the labour market puzzle,” said Guy. “Having a steady, reliable income is fundamental to how secure people feel and is key if the government wants to achieve its ambition of a high-wage, low-welfare economy.”

In a survey published alongside its jobs analysis, Citizens Advice found people rated a steady, reliable income as being as important as the level of take-home pay when they were searching for work. The poll of more than 2,000 people also suggested employers have more to gain from their staff if people had a secure income. Eight in 10 people in work reported a steady job with regular pay increased productivity and 86{06aeb1921e0b802d2bd9c766bc98fb11cc6a46c2b0593ed9c88a0e29cf417a34} said it increased their loyalty.

Earlier research with staff and volunteers from the Citizens Advice network discovered 83{06aeb1921e0b802d2bd9c766bc98fb11cc6a46c2b0593ed9c88a0e29cf417a34} of people with fluctuating work patterns seeking the charity’s help were struggling with debt and 87{06aeb1921e0b802d2bd9c766bc98fb11cc6a46c2b0593ed9c88a0e29cf417a34} faced delays or problems with in-work benefits such as working tax credits and housing benefit.

Source: The Guardian