Nearly half of companies operating in accommodation and food services employ staff on zero-hours contracts (ZHCs), according to a new government survey commissioned as part of its consultation into the practice.

The government defines zero-hours contracts as those “in which an employer does not guarantee the individual any work and the individual is not obliged to accept any work offered”.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates, from research conducted among 5,000 businesses, that there were around 1.4 million employee contracts in force that provided work during two weeks in January/February 2014, but which did not guarantee a minimum number of hours; and that there were a further 1.3 million such contracts that did not provide work in the period.

It found that 13% of businesses make some use of ZHCs, but that the proportion of businesses using them differs according to company size and market. Some 45% of businesses in accommodation and food services use the contracts, compared to 22% of health and social work businesses, 17% of admin and support service businesses, 15% of education organisations and 13% of wholesalers/retailers.

The practice is more common in larger organisations – with nearly half of all businesses with 250+ employees using ZHCs, compared to just 12% of businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

The ONS also cites a recent Labour Force Survey of employees, which reports that people working on ZHCs are more likely to be female, in full-time education or in young (16-24) or older (65 and over) age groups, “perhaps reflecting a tendency to combine flexible working with education or working beyond state retirement age”.

On average, it says, someone on a ZHC usually works 25 hours a week compared with 37 hours a week for people not employed on ZHCs. Just over a third of those employed on ZHCs want more hours, with most wanting them in their current job. Around 14% of people on ZHCs are looking for another job.

The ONS has pledged to carry out further analysis of the data collected as part of its survey, specifically on those who did not work in the fortnight reference period. It will also repeat its business survey during the summer.