Buckingham Palace uses zero-hours contracts for summer staff

The 350 part-time workers deployed during summer opening of royal family's London residence have no guaranteed work

Buckingham Palace, a leading cinema chain and one of Britain's best known art galleries are among a group of high profile employers who sign staff up to so-called "zero-hours" contracts to keep employment costs at a minimum.

Two days after it emerged that retailer Sports Direct employs 20,000 staff on zero-hours terms, the Guardian has established that the royal family's London residence, along with Cineworld and the Tate galleries, hire workers under the controversial employment practice.

The 350 part-time employees deployed as extra staff during Buckingham Palace's summer opening have no guaranteed hours. They work in the shop, greet visitors, and work as monitors in the rooms made open to the public.

All of Cineworld's part-time multiplex staff are on zero-hours contracts, as are all catering staff at the Tate galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives, Cornwall.

Buckingham Palace opened its doors to the public earlier this week, but all the temporary staff hired to run the State Rooms attraction, which includes a Diamond Jubilee exhibition, are forced to sign contracts which give them no guarantee of any work. However, although the contract leaves staff with no promise of work, they are not allowed to work for any other employee without written permission from the palace.

A copy of a staff contract seen by the Guardian, dated 2009, says: "Your hours of work will be advised by the visitor manager and will be dependent upon the requirements for retail assistants at Buckingham Palace as and when required.

"You are employed to work exclusively for Royal Collection Enterprises Limited [a Palace subsidiary] and if you wish to seek secondary employment you must first obtain the written consent of your Head of Department."

A spokeswoman for the palace said the contracts did not guarantee any amount of work, but said rotas were drawn up a month in advance for staff to plan their hours.

But she declined to characterise them as zero-hours contracts: "All temporary staff employed during the summer opening of Buckingham Palace are issued with fixed-term employment contracts for a three-or four-month period. These are not zero-hours contracts."

The palace argues that because the staff are entitled to certain benefits on days when they are called in, such as a free hot or cold lunch, holiday pay and uniforms, amongst other benefits, they cannot be described as zero-hours.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that 200,000 staff work on zero-hours contracts. But experts now believe the true number is far higher.

Cineworld, the UK's second biggest cinema chain with 80 sites across the country, uses zero-hours contracts exclusively for its entire part-time workforce at its multiplexes. With 4,500 employees working at the cinemas and in head office, it is thought that up to 80% are on zero-hours contracts.

Cineworld declined to comment.

The Tate galleries catering service, which uses work across Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives, has also been found to employ all part time staff on zero-hours contracts. A spokesman confirmed that only zero-hours contracts are used but declined to comment further.

The use of the contracts has exploded across the UK in recent years as employers look to employ workers on the most flexible terms within the boundaries of the law.

However, the contracts leave staff without guaranteed hours, sick pay or holiday pay, and make it difficult to get a tenancy agreement, credit card or loan because proving regular income becomes impossible.

The contracts leave workers vulnerable to sudden reduction in shift patterns and last-minute shift cancellations at the discretion of managers. Dozens of staff on zero-hours contracts have told the Guardian that if they do not make themselves available for work they are unlikely to receive shifts for the rest of the month.

The latest revelations prompted trade unions and politicians to condemn the phenomenon and questionofficial estimates of how many workers have jobs with no guaranteed income.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, called for the contracts to be made illegal due to the damage they cause to families.

He said: "Zero-hours contracts should be outlawed entirely. They wind the clock back to the bad old days of people standing at the factory gates, waiting to be picked for a day's work. Many people on zero-hours contracts are on the lowest wages in our economy, making them the least able to cope with financial shocks like a drastic cut in hours from one week to the next. This has a damaging impact on family life, and on people's spending – bad news for our economy and our society."

Sources suggest that ministers are currently unworried by the revelations and have no plans to introduce a ban.

But Vince Cable, the business secretary, said: "Whilst it's important our workforce remains flexible, it is equally important that it is treated fairly. This is why I have asked my officials to undertake some work over the summer to better understand how this type of contract is working in practice today."

Campaign groups have also flooded Sports Direct with emails demanding they give staff the option of fixed hour contracts after all 20,000 part time staff were revealed to be on zero hour contracts, and protests outside stores are planned for this weekend.

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