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Protecting the 'forgotten' workforce

By Professor Jo McBride and Dr Andrew Smith at Bradford University - October 2020

The Covid-19 crisis is a worrying and uncertain time for all of us, but those in precarious employment, including zero-hours contracts (ZHCs), have had a much more worrying and uncertain time than most. ZHCs mean that employers are not obliged to provide any minimum working hours while workers do not have to provide certain working hours either. They’ve become a prominent and permanent feature of the labour market and 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 previous research was the first UK study to focus on these low-paid workers in multiple jobs – which we termed as ‘The Forgotten Workers’. Many have high levels of education and are still employed on ZHCs or highly variable short-hours contracts, where they experience low wages, insufficient working hours and the proliferation of insecure employment. And many are in the care sector, retail and cleaning – employees who are now deemed to be ‘key workers’.

Workers we interviewed on ZHCs could work from 0 up to 60 hours per week. Similarly, those employed in the retail sector could work from as few as four, six, eight or 10 hours per week up to 40+ hours. Many felt pressured into accepting any hours offered, as they feared that turning down shifts would mean that they would not be offered any more work. Many struggled financially due to irregular hours and spoke of “panicking” and “scrambling” to acquire sufficient hours.

Re-evaluating job precarity

The Covid-19 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 demonstrated a mutual social perception of the value of this work.

Moreover, all of 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.

With the easing of lockdown, and the retail and hospitality industries slowly opening back up, many are returning 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 reinforcing the acceptance of insecure work that can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. Heightened asymmetries of power in the employment relationship mean that these individuals will be less likely to protect their basic employment rights.

Mass dismissals

Within a week of lockdown easing, we heard 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’. In fact, on 16 June it was announced that over 600,000 people had lost their jobs during the pandemic, with many of these likely to be on precarious job contracts. Low-paid and insecure work has been a growing problem that has affected the wellbeing of the UK workforce as well as economic growth. More details on the negative effects they have on these workers will continue to be revealed.

Many of these workers have been recognised as being ‘key workers’, keeping the country going during this period of national crisis. It is more urgent than ever to ensure they remain recognised and valued.

For more information on Professor McBride's research interests click here.