Declarations of support for “hardworking people” were commonly heard in the UK general election. This was echoed in the Queen’s Speech, when David Cameron said the 26-bill package was a “programme for working people”. Our research shows that there is another story to be told about Britain’s hardworking people, however, and the support they need.
It is a story about the ongoing rise in temporary, insecure and precarious work. It is about the social and political consequences of solving unemployment through zero hour contracts and temporary agency work. It is about the consequences for workers, but also for employers, government and society.
The Conservatives have celebrated steady improvements in UK unemployment statistics over the past year. The unemployment rate reached its lowest level (5.8%) for more than six years at the end of 2014, with further falls recorded in January to March 2015.
But zero hour contracts and temporary agency work form a significant part of this recently recorded job growth. A snapshot survey of employers by the Office for National Statistics in 2014 estimated that the number of workers on zero hour contracts was at 1.4m. Temporary agency work – where individuals are sent to assignments with a variety of employers by an agency – also reached a historical high during the recent financial crisis, with estimates at 1.6m in 2014. There are precarious workers in the public and private sectors, working for large and small employers.
Our research shows that a substantial proportion of the “hardworking people” in these precarious jobs today face employment insecurity and exploitation rather than opportunities to improve their work prospects and lives.
Intense employment insecurity
The experience of British and migrant temporary agency workers in the hospitality, healthcare and food industries shows that employment insecurity is very intense. The expectation is for workers to be on call and to take up any assignment offered, which can be as little as a few hours on a given day with a few assignments spread over weeks.
Their working conditions are often poor too. Temporary agency workers are given heavy workloads by managers in an effort to decrease overall labour costs, including in the cash-strapped NHS. Falling ill from the harsh working conditions is common for agency workers across the sectors we studied. They are then penalised by getting less or no more calls from the agency.
In healthcare, agency workers are bearing the costs of austerity, with workloads that pose risks to themselves and to patient care. The pressure of private financing, and cuts in clinical care budgets, results in healthcare providers trying to deliver the same level of care with a smaller permanent workforce and a larger ad hoc one. This pressure is then passed onto the ad hoc temporary agency and zero-hour contract workers to speed up their work, including patient care.
Hard work does not pay
Agency work is promoted as offering flexibility and freedom for workers. In contrast, our study found that workers face uncertain, rather than flexible, working hours. They generally cannot live off the work offered on a random basis by agencies. Many of the migrant workers we interviewed lived on two-to-three weekly assignments from agencies during their first months in the UK. They had to stay in overcrowded accommodation and could hardly afford their share of the rent.
Any future policies that cut benefits to EU migrants will aggravate the insecurity experienced by these workers. Welfare benefits are a crucial mechanism in helping all temporary agency workers survive in the short term.
Even in the long term, we found that working hard does not pay off for agency workers. This is despite the protections offered by EU agency worker regulations, in place since 2011. This entitles temporary agency workers with 12 weeks of continuous employment in the same firm to pay and conditions equal to the equivalent permanent employees of that firm.
But, responding to concerns from employers and the recruitment industry, the British government exempted firms from this obligation to provide equal pay and conditions after 12 weeks. Instead, so-called Swedish Derogation agency contracts are allowed. In effect, these tend to provide only one hour’s pay each day when there is no work.
Behind the stats
We found that, regardless of worker performance, agency workers are routinely either switched to Swedish Derogation contracts – with fewer employment rights and wages – or are dismissed before they reach 12 weeks employment. Under such conditions, agency workers cannot access the protections they should be entitled to.
Behind statistics showing low unemployment levels is a proliferation of very insecure temporary jobs with unsustainable working conditions and no long term prospects. These jobs offer flexibility for employers and insecurity for workers. They may even threaten the quality of public services.
If it really wants to help “hardworking people”, the newly elected government should extend the regulation of precarious employment to sectors beyond agriculture, resource the proper implementation of existing regulations, and revisit its plans to cut benefits to EU migrants – a critical labour pool for British employers.