From the TUC

#DecentJobsWeek: “I’m the last mother standing”

19 Dec 2014, by in Working Life

Decent Jobs WeekIf you listen to the government, you could be forgiven for believing that women’s labour market position is better than ever before. It’s certainly true that women’s employment rate is up, and women’s unemployment rate is down. But what this positive picture of women at work doesn’t show us is the reality of job insecurity and how much of the growth in women’s employment has been driven by involuntary part time work, agency work, short fixed-term contracts, zero-hours contracts and short-hours contracts.

Earlier this week, the TUC published a report looking at the experiences of twelve women in various different types of casualised work, from fixed-term contracts in Higher Education to agency work, to short-hours contracts in retail and hospitality.

The point of the report wasn’t to show that women are more likely to find themselves employed on casual contracts – although it is true that slightly more women are in casualised work than men. The point was to show that casualised and precarious work present some particular problems for women, partly because of the weaker maternity rights and partly because of the impossibility of juggling variable hours or job insecurity with caring responsibilities. Of course, men have caring responsibilities too but it’s no secret that women still tend to do the lion’s share of unpaid care in our society and their caring responsibilities tend to have a greater impact on their labour market attachment and their lifetime pay.

The interviews paint a picture of a labour market where “flexibility” is a benefit enjoyed by the employer. The women interviewed often became aware of just what a bad hand they’d been dealt when they became pregnant. It was often only in pregnancy, often at quite a late stage, that women realised just how vulnerable their employment status was.

One of the women interviewed, Lucy, was told by her employer (an agency) that she wasn’t entitled to maternity leave and that she would have to re-apply for her job after having her baby. After reapplying, Lucy started the same job again but on a lower pay scale which meant a £2 per hour pay cut.

The issue of childcare was raised by all of the women interviewed.  Childcare is hard to find and hard to afford at the best of times – even with regular hours and regular income. Most childcare fits standard patterns of working hours over set days which must be agreed and paid for well in advance.

Isabelle described a “patchwork of hours of her working week”. Her hours vary between 10 and 36 hours and she has to organise childcare for full-time hours just in case she is offered the work.

In a Decent Jobs Week blog earlier this week, Helen, a home care worker, eloquently explained how her zero hours contract made it impossible for her to pay for and plan her childcare. She also explained how her variable hours and fluctuating income wreak havoc with in-work benefits. Several women we spoke to talked about difficulties caused by overpayments of benefits and tax credits which were calculated on the basis of the previous year’s income which may have been significantly higher.  One woman, Ann, who was juggling a short hours contract and caring for her adult disabled son, talked of her increasing dependence on painkillers to cope with the stress of a demand to repay a housing benefit overpayment.

The report highlights how women often feel forced out of their jobs once they become mothers. One interviewee, Ella, a teacher in a Further Education college in London, sums it up perfectly:

“My colleagues don’t have children. The mothers have left teaching. All my colleagues in the department that I work in are either men, or women who do not have children. I am the last mother standing!”