Insecure contracts create interlocking pressures both at work and home.  

Published date
19 Jan 2018

Within his report, Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practises, Matthew Taylor applauds the ‘flexibility’ of the British Labour market. 

Writing on the virtues of the British labour market, he argues:

 The UK is good at encouraging economic activity and creating jobs. ‘The British way’ works and we don’t need to overhaul the system. The Review believes that maintaining the flexible and adaptable approach to labour market regulation has benefitted the UK so far, but focusing more closely on the quality of work as well as the number of people employed, will take us in the right direction.

Taylor Review on Modern work practices, p31

Our study for the TUC, titled, ‘Living on the Edge: Experiencing Workplace Insecurity in the UK’ undertaken by researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Greenwich reveals the dark-side and the hidden costs associated with these celebrated flexible working patterns.

Our study included numerous in-depth interviews with workers on insecure ‘flexible’ contracts from three sectors across the UK notably retail, logistics and higher education (HE). Contrary to exclaiming the benefits of flexible working, these interviews revealed a pernicious set of interlocking pressures at work and home.  

The one-sided benefits to the employer of insecure work and the resulting asymmetry of power this creates in the workplace was widely reported. In the absence of workplace security, workers across all sectors reported upon growing pressures at work and widely testified to feelings of worthlessness, vulnerability and fear in the face of unbridled employer power.  The pressures at work included:

  1. Instances of workplace bullying were highlighted with workers believing that refusing to agree the offer of work or a shift change at short notice could make them vulnerable and that they could be starved of hours in the future.  One respondent in HE highlighted, “I never say no to anything. It’s the mentality that I think, that if you want to leave a good impression you need to show that you are hyper-flexible, hyper ready to help. You know, you like to show that whatever is offered to you, you don’t refuse it”.
  2. Close surveillance and monitoring of activity coupled with draconian performance management regimes were evident in warehousing and parcel delivery. Reaching expected performance targets caused stress and anxiety for many workers on zero-hour contracts (ZHC) in this sector. One parcel delivery driver referring to her manager stated, “He’s physically tracking me through that scanner, and I’ve asked him not to. I haven’t given him consent to do it. He told me he wanted to know when I was stood at a door, when I scanned the parcel, and what time I was there.  I feel like Big Brother’s watching me. It’s awful. I can’t do my job correctly... I’m stressed.”
  3. Referring to the ‘scare of precarity,’ respondents highlighted the constant cycle of insecurity which included the relentless search for the next contract, or the next hour of teaching, coupled living with the fear of redundancy or the ‘fear of the axe’.  An interviewee stated, “the thing with the ZHC, it’s not just the so-called flexibility, i.e. you don't know how many hours you’re going to get from one week to the next. What’s the real issue here is, the fact that they can get rid of people like that.    People can turn up and be told they are not wanted. And that’s fear”
  4. All respondents reported the absence of sick pay and holiday pay entitlement. Self-employed drivers described working long hours to secure pay rates equivalent to the national minimum wage. Respondents in all sectors also reported on the significant amounts of unpaid labour they systematically performed.

In too many instances the pressures at work are mirrored at home by rising personal and household debt, and material hardships engendered by low and unpredictable pay. The (in)ability to escape from the fear of insecure work and to have the capacity to sustain a reasonable existence was endemic in the three sectors studied.

All workers highlighted the day to day struggles they faced in the face of unpredictable levels of pay. One ZHC worker from a high street fast food outlet reported on colleagues taking shifts at several stores in the locality as they would be entitled to free food.  Despite the clear hardships widely reported within our study, the Taylor Report offers little comfort to workers on ZHC and insecure contracts.  

The timid attempt by Taylor to rectify the plight of millions of workers on insecure contracts by recommending they may have the right to request a guaranteed hours contract will do little to redress the imbalance of power in the workplace and provide ‘quality’ jobs.

Our research also highlights the central role that unions play in tackling the more pernicious aspects of insecure work.  Our evidence reveals that workers in all the sectors are turning to unions to provide protection and to negotiate fairer terms and conditions of employment.

Self-employed workers are increasingly organizing with the support of union campaigns. All our respondents were able to highlight how unions had offered support and protection in the light of unbridled employer power, helping them overcome feelings of vulnerability and isolation. 

It’s clear that this continued union organising coupled with the  TUC’s “Great Jobs Agenda” is crucially important if we are achieve good work for everyone in the UK .