‘Flexible’ employment: the winners and the losers

Decent Jobs Week

Government and industry often argue that the flexibility of casualised ‘zero hours’ jobs benefits both employers and workers. The advantages for employers are abundantly clear. But what’s in it for the workers?

The winners…

For many employers, retaining a pool of flexible workers, who are familiar with their business practices and who can be called on with short notice, allows them to respond cost-effectively to peaks and troughs in demand – i.e. it minimises their wage bill, since employers are only required to pay zero hour contract and agency workers for the time they actually work. Employers use agencies to ‘outsource’ any employment law obligations; whilst other see zero hours contracts as a means of evading such rights altogether. Employers can reduce costs by laying off staff at short notice, and there are no redundancy payments.

… and the losers

Of course, some people are attracted by the flexibility offered by zero hours contracts and agency working. For example, it is not uncommon for nurses to seek to top up their hours and incomes by offering to undertake additional work through in-house banks. But evidence gathered by the TUC suggests that too often these kinds of insecure employment are a form of imposed flexibility rather than a positive choice for working people. There is also growing evidence that the use of zero-hours contracts and agency working is a conduit for exploitation and abuse. Many casual workers are effectively put ‘on perpetual call’ – expected to turn up to work at extremely short notice. At the same time, employers are under no obligation to pay an individual who turns up for the start of a shift that is no longer deemed necessary. Casual workers are also in a perilous position to complain about exploitation at work when their job can be terminated at a moment’s notice, or their shifts cut on the whim of a manager they dare to challenge. The problem is that current employment legislation has failed to keep pace with changes in the UK labour market, which is still designed to protect the traditional ‘payroll’ employee. Employers have none of the responsibilities associated with hiring traditional ‘payroll’ employees; and casual workers have few of the rights and benefits of their salaried colleagues, such as sick pay and paid leave. With casualised work continuing to grow, the Government need to take steps to address this inequality – and fast.

No guarantee of work equality

The experience of Bob, a care worker who spoke to the TUC, illustrates just how easy it can be for bosses to redraw the whole employer-worker relationship. When his company was taken over, his new employers issued new contracts through consultation, changing an all-important clause in the contract from “the company does not guarantee to offer work and staff do not have to accept work” to the starkly one-sided “the company won’t guarantee work and staff have to accept the work offered.” Bob advised colleagues not to sign the contract but all new staff since the takeover have had to. Bob believes he should retain the right to not work since the company does not guarantee work:

“No guarantee of work equality. There should be equality for employees to say we cannot work. They are expecting people to be on standby without paying stand-by time.”

Bob has noticed there is a high turnover of staff.

“People like me who stand up for ourselves stick around. But the very young workers get bullied and are used. They burn out and leave. In this job, employers have all the power.”

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