From ‘forgotten’ to ‘key’ workers: protecting the precariously employed

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While the Covid-19 crisis is a worrying and uncertain time for all of us, it brings into sharp focus some important contemporary employment issues. Jo McBride and Andrew Smith examine workers on zero hours and short-hours contracts whose employment is precarious on a daily basis.

Zero hours contracts have become a prominent feature of the labour market. Under ZHCs employers are not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, while the worker is not required – but often feels obliged – to accept any work offered. It is estimated that approximately 974,000 workers (including at least 30,000 NHS workers) in the UK are currently employed on ZHCs in their main job.

Our research, the first ever UK study to focus on low-paid workers who need multiple jobs to make ends meet, termed these as “forgotten workers”. We interviewed 50 low-paid workers in multiple legitimate employment in Yorkshire and the North East. Many have high levels of education, and are still employed on ZHCs or highly variable short-hours contracts in the care, retail and cleaning sectors – people who are now deemed “key workers”.

Although there is the legislation to protect employees from risk, the heightened asymmetries of power in the employment relationship, through the rapid increase of precarious work contracts, means that these individuals will be less likely to protect their basic employment rights”

All of them had multiple jobs and worked on ZHCs due to factors including low-wages, insufficient working hours, and the proliferation of insecure employment.

Zero hours work epitomises non-standard employment. It is often associated with low-pay and is marred by limited employment protection, job instability and irregular working hours.

ZHCs and highly variable short-hours contracts are unique due to their indeterminate nature, whereby working hours and, therefore, pay is unpredictable and variable. This is a direct result of “flexible scheduling” used by employers and managers to carefully match staffing levels to fluctuations in demand in order to maximise cost efficiencies.

Workers we interviewed on ZHCs could work from 0 to 60 hours per week. Similarly those employed in the retail sector could work from as few as 4, 6, 8 or 10 hours to more than 40 hours. Many felt pressurised into accepting any hours offered, as they feared that turning down shifts would mean they would not be offered more. Many struggled financially due to irregular hours and spoke of “panicking” and “scrambling” to acquire sufficient hours to make ends meet. Yet these very same people are now rightly viewed as key workers.

Re-evaluating job precarity

The current coronavirus crisis raises fundamental questions over what has become the normalisation of precarious work, particularly around ZHCs and variable working hours. Indeed, the Clap for Carers campaign demonstrates a mutual social perception of the value of this work. There is already a re-evaluation of precarious work in the public discourse.

Moreover, all the workers we interviewed wanted employment stability and security, with better pay and good terms and conditions of employment. Many sought standard employment of “one decent full-time job” with stable hours. Control over working time was a key issue in order to have guaranteed working hours and flexibility to spend quality time with family and friends. Employment security and income stability would mean that these key workers would not have to constantly worry about incomes, working hours and being able to pay bills. They all wanted ZHCs to be banned and were supportive of trade union campaigns to re-regulate the employment relationship.

Though the furlough scheme has been brought in to help many of these workers, it only applies to ZHC workers if they are on PAYE with their employer (earning more than an average of £118 per week) or that it would depend upon how much a ZHC employee earned the previous month (which would be February). Even in these instances it is only ‘in most cases’ that they are eligible for furlough. Due to the indeterminate nature of ZHCs, it is not clear how many people would qualify for this or if companies would even bother to take up this scheme. Unsurprisingly, many were confused at this advice, including employers.

Moreover, with the easing of lockdown, many workers on insecure, precarious contracts may be looking to return to work as soon as possible to ensure they attain further work, hours and earnings. This is not only potentially putting their health at risk, but is further reinforcing the acceptance of the use of insecure work that can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. Although there is the legislation to protect employees from risk, the heightened asymmetries of power in the employment relationship, through the rapid increase of precarious work contracts, means that these individuals will be less likely to protect their basic employment rights.

Indeed, only a week into the return to work, there are stories of mass dismissals, without notice, workers only paid for partial hours and workers not being paid at all as they are not classed as employees. This is a real concern and there are clearly worrying gaps in the government’s support package.

What happens to our key workers? Low-paid and insecure work has been a growing problem that has affected the wellbeing of the UK workforce as well as economic growth. There is no doubt that more details will be revealed on negative effects to these workers after the lockdown. As these workers have been ‘forgotten’ for so long, we may not know how many have been affected.

Now many of these ‘forgotten workers’ have been recognised as being ‘key workers’ keeping the country going, it is more urgent than ever to ensure they remain recognised and valued. When we eventually reach the end of this crisis, we must ensure that these workers are never ‘forgotten’ again.

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