Insecure Work: A Sad Reality For Too Long

In my piece for the Yorkshire Post on 19th August, I discussed the impact of insecure work on people in Barnsley and across the UK. Read it below:

When Theresa May stood outside Downing Street just over a year ago, she raised the issue of insecure work – saying people “have jobs, but don’t always have job security.”  You’d be forgiven for mistaking the Tory leader’s statement as an accurate prediction of her own employment status.

But whilst the PM may only just be getting familiar with insecure work, for many across the country this has been a sad reality for far too long.

Research suggests up to 10 million workers are currently employed in insecure work. It’s not a new issue but it’s on the rise and now comes in many forms.  The combination of the gig economy and a Tory government unwilling to help workers has left too many people faced with the option of precarious work or nothing.

Perhaps the most prominent form of insecure work is zero-hours contracts.  Workers on zero-hour contracts have no guarantee of the hours they will be working from week-to-week and day-to-day. This leaves people unable to plan their lives or household budget.   

In our region, these contracts have had a particularly damaging impact. Nationally nearly a million people are trapped in zero-hours contracts, equivalent to 2.7 per cent of workers. But in Yorkshire that figure is significantly higher, with 3.3 per cent of all workers stuck in this arrangement of insecure work. Workers here and across the country deserve better than this.  That’s why I fully support Labour’s pledge to ban exploitative zero-hour contracts. 

Zero-hour contracts aren’t the only type of insecure work, however. We see agency contracts used in local factories and warehouses - often large proportions of staff toiling day in, day out with inferior rights and no security.

Genuine use of agency contracts meet temporary or seasonal needs - like for the Christmas shopping rush or at a caravan park during the summer - but we are seeing them become increasingly used long-term to maximise profit whilst providing minimal protection or job security for staff. 

Agency workers are not given equal status with the full-time staff they work alongside until after 12 weeks, and even then they are under no obligation to be provided with sick pay, maternity or paternity pay, or redundancy pay.  In these cases, colleagues work side-by-side, doing the same job, but with very different conditions and protections.

This is not the end of the story - unscrupulous employers have found yet another way to avoid their responsibilities to the people who make them their money. 

Fake self-employment has boomed with businesses like Uber, Hermes and Deliveroo playing a huge role.  Here businesses set conditions and pay, sometimes even provide uniforms, but class the workers who follow their regulations as self-employed. Despite being employees in everything but title, the workers are instead left without secure work, employment protections, paid leave, and often subjected to work for less than the minimum wage and with frequent pay deductions.

The number of people employed in the gig economy has also rocketed in recent years with over a million workers now employed that way. But more than half of gig workers could be described as fake self-employed.  Predictably, the Government’s lack of action has left the average worker exposed and unable to plan for their futures, no matter how hard they work. 

Workers are left without consistent employment and income security. Many are subsequently forced into debt, unable to pay bills or provide food for themselves and their families, whilst most falsely self-employed are unable to save in a pension. Others are forced to work through illness due to fear of losing what employment they have, or experience severe stress and other forms of mental ill-health. 

But it’s not just the worker and their family who suffer. We're all paying for this. Insecure work is a blight on our country and affects us all.

Widespread avoidance of paying the minimum wage, holiday pay and sick leave by companies is estimated to cost the public purse £300m a year in lost national insurance contributions, for instance. And when people get paid so poorly the state must top up their pay, we're footing the bill in tax credits. That's not the workers fault, it's the fault of a broken system. 

It’s clear serious action is needed from the Government to address this issue. But rather predictably, the Government’s actions fall woefully short of that required. In the 12 months since the Prime Minister made that speech, the number of zero-hour contracts in Yorkshire alone rose by 12,200.

The Government could match their warm words by immediately providing equal rights for those doing the same work as full time and permanent staff, tackling exploitative business practices that place no value in workers’ financial security, and quickly addressing their shortfalls in adapting to changes in industry. Life shouldn't be this hard for people who are doing their best to get on in life. 

If the Government is short of ideas, I’ll be presenting my Private Members Bill on making work more secure in the Autumn. The Prime Minister is more than welcome to take a look, though I’m sure she’ll be handily acquainted with life as a precarious worker by then."

 

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