Zero hours and the changing face of employment

Decent Jobs Week

A new TUC report to mark Decent Jobs Week (15-21 December) reveals that, far from limited to low paid, low skilled jobs, ‘zero hours contracts’ and other insecure forms of employment are on the rise across the whole UK workforce, even affecting highly skilled professionals, such as lecturers, radiographers and airline pilots.

Who’s affected?

There is a clear link between casual work and low pay. Insecure employment is synonymous with the care sector (61% of domiciliary care workers in September 2011 were on zero hours contracts), but also particularly prevalent in retail, and the food and accommodation industry (where at least 45% of employers make some use of zero hours contracts). However, across the board, employers’ drive towards more flexible and often precarious forms of work has also led to greater levels of job insecurity among higher skilled and better paid staff working in professional occupations including education, health and entertainment. One of the most striking developments in recent years has been the rapid expansion in the use of zero-hours contracts in the public sector. For example, the Financial Times reported in 2013 that there are 100,000 zero-hours contracts in use in NHS hospitals alone. And a 2014 survey by the Office for National Statistics found 35% of employers in the education sector used them. There has also been an increase in the use of zero-hours contracts in parts of the private sector. For example, major airlines are starting to employ pilots on zero hours contracts during the first years of their career, before offering them permanent, secure contracts.

The human cost of casualisation

The repercussions of insecure, casual forms of work can be felt at work, at home and in people’s social lives. Low pay is the most immediate problem, particularly as the cost of living continues to climb and outstrip wages. The increasing use of food banks has been well-documented. And many struggling families and individuals are also resorting to pay day loans to make ends meet, running the risk of getting into unmanageable debt. Insecure pay from irregular work means pay packets can and do fluctuate wildly from week to week, and it doesn’t just affect the lowest paid: it can also be difficult for better-off individuals and households relying on casualised work to plan financially, access credit or to secure mortgages or tenancy agreements. Constantly varying working hours also have an impact on family life, making it difficult for people to organise childcare or look after relatives. In some casual jobs, workers are ‘on perpetual call’, expected to turn up for work at a moment’s notice. This puts a strain on their social lives and personal relationships. A Higher Education lecturer working a zero hours contract told the TUC:

“As a single parent, if me or one of my children is sick, and I can’t go to work, I don’t get paid. I don’t get paid during the holidays, can’t plan in advance for finances, don’t get as many days as I would like, [I don’t like] the lack of continuity with students and not [having] enough time to plan, do paperwork and do a really good job.”

(She is not alone in wanting a decent number of guaranteed hours. TUC analysis in early 2014 found that 3.4 million workers were experiencing underemployment, an increase of more than a million since the start of the recession.) Casualised workers often end up feeling undervalued and overworked . A Unison survey of more than 15,000 school support staff revealed a professional and committed, but demoralised, workforce struggling to support students adequately:  80% were concerned about workload; 70% were concerned about job security;  80% loved their job, but fewer than half felt valued; almost 90% were concerned about low pay. Demoralisation also can have knock-on effects for service users. Pay and conditions in the social care sector have driven high staff turnover, meaning elderly and disabled people, amongst others, aren’t getting the quality and consistency of care they need. The potential for working hours to be zeroed down at short notice, the absence of guarantees over take-home pay, and the increased vulnerability to mistreatment, have contributed to a pattern of growing dissaffection with insecure employment:  in 2008 just 19% per cent of zero hours contract workers reported that they were in temporary work only because they could not find a permanent job. In 2014, this figure has more than doubled to 41%. This is a growing problem as more and more businesses employ a greater proportion of casualised staff. But there is still plenty the Government can and should be doing to ensure that casualised workers – 1.7 million of them at last count – aren’t exploited or deprived of their basic employment rights.

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