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Cleaner mopping hospital floor.

Spending review: key workers on zero-hours contracts overlooked again

To deal with the “economic emergency” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a series of measures at the recent spending review to try and stabilise the economy. One of the central pillars of the review focused on jobs and help for low-paid workers – with an increase in the national living wage or minimum wage from April 2021 of 19p to £8.91 an hour.

While these may sound like positives, the announcement did not deal with any of the deep-rooted structural issues around low-paid employment in the UK. In particular, those workers on zero-hours and highly variable short-hours contracts, whose employment is uncertain and precarious.

This seems very shortsighted given the fact that many people on zero-hours contracts are “key workers” – employed in the care sector, retail and cleaning. And these are jobs that have proved to be vital to keep the country going in the face of the pandemic.

Zero-hours contracts have become a prominent and permanent feature of the labour market in the UK. Under these types of contracts, employers are not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, and the worker does not have to accept any work offered.

Zero job security

It’s estimated that prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, close to 1 million workers were employed on a zero-hours contract in their main job. And this is a figure that has risen throughout the pandemic.

Our research is the first UK study to focus on workers in multiple low-paid jobs. And we were surprised and alarmed to find a number with four, five, six and even seven different jobs.

We interviewed 50 low-paid workers in multiple employment in the regions of Yorkshire and the north-east of England. We found 21 were employed on zero-hours contracts, with a further eight retail workers employed on highly variable short-hours contracts.

Man working in kebab shop, wearing hair net, gloves and mask.
Zero-hours work is marked by low pay, irregular hours and job instability. Abed Rahim Khatib/Shutterstock

In terms of education, 12 of these workers had A-levels, nine had degrees and three even had master’s degrees. All of these workers had multiple jobs and zero-hours contact work due to low-wages, insufficient working hours and insecure employment.

Workers we interviewed on zero-hours contracts could work from zero to 60 hours a week. Similarly, those employed in the retail sector could work from as few as four, six, eight or ten hours a week, right up to more than 40 hours. Many felt pressurised into accepting any hours offered, as they feared that turning down shifts would mean that they would not be offered anymore work – as one interviewee, Jack, explained:

You wait in all day for a phone call. You have no guarantee of an income whatsoever. You could essentially be sacked at any time – [management] just don’t have to give you any hours.

Many struggled financially due to irregular hours and spoke of “panicking” and “scrambling” to acquire sufficient hours to make ends meet. Ella who has three zero-hours contact jobs – two in education and one in social services – told us how challenging this can be:

There’s no transparency around who gets what hours. You are pitted against a pool of other employees who want those hours as well – they all want as much as possible.

Finding ‘good work’

It wasn’t that long ago that we were all being encouraged to clap for carers and speaking about how we wanted the world to change for the better after the pandemic. This dream of a more sustainable economy should not be forgotten in favour of continuation of low paid and insecure employment.

'Thank you keyworkers' written in large chalk letters on wall in front of houses.
Let’s not forget about the people who have kept this country running. John Gomez/Shutterstock

This comes at a time of increased focus as to what good work or a good job should actually look like. For an employer, this could mean paying the real living wage, guaranteeing working hours, offering training and career development opportunities and supporting people’s work-life balance. And from the employee’s perspective, fair treatment at work along with guaranteed working hours and pay would go a long way.

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 also a key issue – 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 income, working hours and being able to pay bills. Indeed, the people we spoke with wanted dignity at work and trade union representation, which is a lot more than the 19p an hour offered in the spending review.

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