06/05/2014 04:42 BST | Updated 06/05/2014 04:59 BST

Jobseekers Face Losing Benefits If They Refuse Zero-Hours Contracts

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 01: In this photo illustration a job seeker uses an interactive computer to search for employment opportunities at a job centre on December 1, 2008 in Liverpool, England. Job centres are seeing a surge in people looking for work as unemployment reached its highest level for 11 years with 1.82 million people in the UK now out of work. Economists are predicting that unemployment could top 2 million in the coming months. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Ima

Jobseekers face being stripped of their benefits if they refuse to take some forms of zero-hours contracts under the coalition's welfare reforms.

Claimants risk losing payments for more than three months if they fail to accept certain positions on such terms as part of the new universal credit system. The spread of zero-hours contracts has become controversial as the deals do not guarantee fixed hours or benefits.

Employment minister Esther McVey outlined the change in a letter to Labour MP Sheila Gilmore in an exchange about benefits sanctions, according to the Guardian.

Jobcentre "coaches" will be able to "mandate to zero-hours contracts" if they consider the role is suitable for a claimant, it added.

Gilmore told the Guardian: "While I don't object to the principle of either universal credit or zero-hours contracts, I am concerned about this policy change.

"I also fear that if people are required to take jobs with zero-hours contracts, they could be prevented from taking training courses or applying for other jobs that might lead to more stable and sustainable employment in the long term."

Last week unions called for action against zero-hours working after a study showed about 1.4 million jobs involve the controversial type of arrangement.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said most of the contracts were zero hours, under which people are not guaranteed work from one week to the next, but officials pointed out that some workers could have more than one contract.

A study among employers showed that 13% used non-guaranteed hours contracts, rising to almost half in the tourism, catering and food sectors.

More than one in five employers in health and social work reported using them, but they were relatively rare in financial, manufacturing, energy and agricultural services.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "With Universal Credit, claimants will not be required to sign up to exclusive zero hours contracts. As now, if there's a good reason someone can't just take a particular job they won't be sanctioned.

"But it is right that people do everything they can to find work and that we support them to build up their working hours and earnings. The average zero hours contract provides workers with 25 hours of work a week - and can lead to long-term opportunities.

"Universal Credit payments will adjust automatically depending on the hours a person works to ensure that people whose hours may change are financially supported and do not face the hassle and bureaucracy of switching their benefit claims."