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Greater protection for workers needed

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the great risks and uncertainty involved in precarious employment and the need for greater regulation and job security for those in these roles, according to Dr Jo McBride of the Business School, and Dr Andrew Smith (Bradford University). Encouraging workers who can’t work from home to go into work could force those on insecure contracts (e.g. zero-hours and variable short-hours contracts) to take this huge risk so they can ensure they attain further work, hours and earnings.

In doing so, workers are not only potentially putting their health at risk, but are further reinforcing the acceptance of the use of insecure work that can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers.

Dr McBride and Dr Smith have previously researched extensively into low-paid workers who need to have multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. The researchers produced the first ever UK study to focus on such employees, who they term ‘The Forgotten Workers’. Many are employed on ZHCs or highly variable short-hours contracts in the care sector, retail and cleaning – many that are now deemed ‘key workers’.

All workers interviewed as part of the study wanted employment stability and security, with better pay and conditions. The overwhelming majority felt pressurised into accepting any hours offered, as they feared that turning down shifts would mean they wouldn’t be offered anymore work, and struggled financially due to irregular hours and difficulties in attaining sufficient hours. 

This is heightened even further during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the researchers, with generally less regular work available and the need for an income more important for households. However, there are serious risks involved with the return to work for many, forcing many precarious workers to choose between health and wealth.

Dr McBride said:

“Whilst the COVID-19 crisis is a worrying and uncertain time for all of us, it has brought into sharp focus important contemporary employment issues in the UK. In particular those workers on zero hours contracts and highly variable short-hours contracts whose employment is uncertain and precarious on a daily and weekly basis as it is. Many of those are NHS and other key workers, who deserve employment security and income stability, meaning they do not have to constantly worry about incomes, working hours and being able to pay bills.”

According to GMB Union data, it’s estimated that approximately 974,000 workers - including at least 30,000 NHS workers - in the UK are currently employed on zero hours contracts as their main job. Now that many of these workers have been recognised as being ‘key workers’ keeping the country going, and campaigns such as ‘Clap for Carers’ have shown public appreciation for those in this work, it is now more urgent than ever to ensure they remain recognised and valued.

Dr McBride continued:

“Although there is 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, staff only paid for partial hours worked and many not paid at all. This is a real concern.”

Dr McBride and Dr Smith’s study recently encouraged Kirklees Council to pass a motion on supporting low-paid workers in multiple jobs, stress the need to urgently address labour market changes, including the regulation or eradication of ZHCs and a need for policies relating to job guarantee for those in insecure contracts.

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