#DecentJobsWeek: Time to end the two-tier workforce
If the government is to be believed we should all be feeling more secure because the numbers in employment are rising. However, the reality is very different for many in precarious work, where exploitation is the norm and there is no prospect of escape or hope that things will improve.
Employers argue that flexible contracts are good for businesses and provide workers with more choice over the kinds of job they do and when they work.
But a new TUC report shows that employers are really using zero-hours and casual contracts to drive down the wages bill and reduce costs by not paying sick pay, or providing pensions or other workplace benefits. Those in precarious work are also deprived of basic workplace rights that enable them to challenge mistreatment at work.
In the run up to Decent Jobs Week workers told the TUC about abuses they were facing in the workplace, including:
- Losing out on holiday pay or being frightened to ask for time off for fear they won’t be offered future work.
- Being refused work because they are pregnant or are just returning from maternity leave.
- Being offered the worst shifts or being expected to work late even though they have no transport to get home.
- Not being paid in full or on time.
- Employers refusing to adjust their shifts so they can care for their families or attend doctor’s appointments.
- Being sent home at the start of or half way through a shift with no pay.
Such mistreatment is the result of being employed on a zero-hours contract, as a freelancer or in casual work, which provide no job security. Such individuals can be sacked without notice and for no fair reason.
Many employers don’t take the trouble of formally dismissing them – instead the texts or phone calls offering shifts just stop coming. The individual is left wondering when or if they will be offered more hours and from where their next pay cheque will come.
In this situation individuals may have few rights.
Some won’t qualify for ‘employee’ rights such as unfair dismissal because their employer employs them on an ‘as and when required’ basis.
Others may have worked for the same employer for years (44 per cent of zero-hours contract jobs last for two years or more and 25 per cent have lasted for five years or more) but still lose out because their work is intermittent. If an individual has a gap in work of more than a week they may lack the two years’ continuous service needed to qualify for unfair dismissal rights.
Unlike those with permanent, secure contracts, zero-hours and casual workers often miss out on redundancy pay if work dries up – leaving them with no money for household bills until they find another job.
Employers also argue that flexible contracts help workers to balance work and family life. What they don’t point out is that those on casual contracts often aren’t entitled to basic parental rights the rest of us take for granted – including the right to return to their job after maternity or paternity leave. This damages individuals’ income and prospects of getting on in work. Those in ‘flexible jobs’ even lose out on the right to request to work flexibly during hours which suits their family needs because they aren’t ‘employees’ or don’t have 26 weeks’ continuous service.
They also face major barriers to enforcing the few rights they do have. It’s not uncommon for employers to tell those on casual contracts that they have no rights. Individuals can only challenge this by going to an employment tribunal – which can cost up to £1,200. Without union membership such fees are unaffordable and workers have no other means to resolve their problems.
It’s time to end the two-tiered approach to workplace rights, where those in permanent, secure jobs benefit from full employment rights, whilst those in precarious work are exploited and treated like second-class citizens.
The TUC believes that employment status rules should be modernised to ensure that all ‘workers’ not just ‘employees’ benefit from job security and family-friendly rights. The law should state that all individuals are presumed to be ‘employees’, unless the employer can prove they are genuinely self-employed. Workers should not lose out on workplace rights just because they have a gap of more than one week in work.