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Living on the Edge

Experiencing workplace insecurity in the UK
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

Recent headline labour market indicators suggest that the UK labour market is ostensibly performing well.  Not captured in the headline measures, however, is the growth in specific types of employment that are low paid, insecure and precarious. The TUC (2017: 12) has estimated that 3.2 million workers in the UK face insecurity in work. Insecure workers include people employed on zero hours contracts, people in insecure temporary work, including agency, casual and seasonal workers, and low-paid self-employed workers.  ·

The report comprises an analysis of representative survey data and a detailed investigation of insecure work in insecurity in three sectors: retail and logistics/delivery, and higher education. For each sector, workers from three regions of the economy (east of England, Yorkshire and London) were interviewed.

Main Conclusions

  • The survey results revealed clear lines of division in the labour market experiences of permanent employees and the casual workforce.   
  • As compared to permanent employees, workers in casual employment are more likely: to be young, non-white and employed in an elementary occupation; experience lower job satisfaction and life satisfaction; have perceived low employment security; and higher levels of anxiety and depression and are more likely to anticipate losing their jobs and withdraw from the labour market.
  • Women are more likely to leave employment and have a lower likelihood of securing a permanent contract than men. Workers in fixed-term and casual employment are less likely than those in permanent jobs to be represented at work and are less likely to be trade unions members.
  • 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 in this report. Referred to by one respondent as the ‘scare of precarity’, workers across all sectors and in all regions highlighted the number of ways in which this fear manifest.
  • Guaranteed Hours Contracts or Short-Hours (flexi) contracts provide a number of fixed and guaranteed hours per week, but this is predicated on workers being available for additional hours which they often felt that they could not refuse.
  • Respondents reported significant fluctuations in both levels of pay and/or the regularity of payment. Many of the workers interviewed reported that they struggled financially and expressed considerable anxiety about ‘making ends meet’ and supporting themselves and their families. Respondents across all sectors reported significant financial hardship.
  • Self-employed workers revealed that they often worked for a relatively low wage and as a result struggled financially.
  • Respondents often expressed a sense of ‘worthlessness’ verging on despair that they experienced because of insecure and precarious work.  
  • Insecure and precarious work tilts the employment relationship heavily in favour of the employer: managers have discretion over the allocation of hours to workers, and the withdrawal of hours/contracts is used as a mechanism of control, which can lead to serious abuse.  
  • ZHC, hourly paid and/or self-employment rely upon significant elements of unpaid labour. The dynamics of unpaid labour can take a variety of forms across all sectors.
  • Employees attachment or commitment to their profession can at best ameliorate some of the worse excess of insecure work.  It should be noted however that this attachment does not negate the financial hardship workers experienced.  
  • Respondents across all sectors reported the implementation of draconian performance management regimes allied to growing levels of bullying and harassment from first-line supervisors.  
  • Our evidence reveals that workers in all of the sectors of our study 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.

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