From the TUC

What we talk about when we talk about insecure work

16 Dec 2016, by in Economics

Today sees the launch of a new TUC report mapping insecurity at work in Britain today, and how key risks associated with work have been transferred to working people, while the financial rewards from flexibility accrue to employers.

We find that 3.2 million workers, one in ten, face insecurity in their working lives, due to working in casual or agency work, on a zero hours contract, or in low paid self-employment.

1.5 million of these workers are working for an employer but still miss out on protection from unfair dismissal and the right to redundancy pay. And nearly half a million of this group are earning too little to qualify for sick pay.

It’s the first in a series of reports from the TUC, in which we’ll seek to understand more about what’s driving these forms of insecurity, the experience of insecure workers, and most importantly what we can do to reverse this trend. But we wanted to start by trying to set out why we should be concerned about these forms of insecure work, and try and get a handle on what exactly the problem we’re trying to address is.

This year has seen an increasing and welcome focus on the changing world of work – sometimes described as the gig economy, sometimes seen through the prism of the huge increase in self-employment, and sometimes zeroing in on zero hours contracts.

What we think these forms of work have in common is that they change the relationship between the employer and the worker. And in each of these forms of work, key risks associated with work have been transferred to working people, while the financial rewards from flexibility accrue to employers (as the report sets out, workers in insecure jobs face pay significant pay penalties compared to regular employees).

Employers have sought to manage the financial risk that comes from the inability to guarantee a constant demand for a product or service by employing workers on contracts that offer flexibility for the employer, at the expense of pay and certainty for the employee. And because these contracts often come with lower pay and fewer rights and protections, the risk of being unable to work due to sickness or caring responsibilities, is also transferred to working people.

Technology has played a role in these shifts, with online platforms offering a way for employers to break up work into smaller tasks, and contract workers on a piece work basis. (We think that the impact of technology on the employment relationship, our focus here, should be looked at separately from its impact on the employment experience – in the form of surveillance or monitoring, or on the supply of work and whether robots will replace humans altogether in the labour market).

But the change in the balance of risks between workers and employers cannot be simply attributed to new technology. Unions have long been concerned about the nature of the relationship between those requiring and those supplying employment, from the days of piece work, through labour exchanges, the increase in temporary work in the 1990s, to today’s zero hour contracts, agency workers and growing army of self-employed.

And while some of the today’s insecure workers may work for ‘platform’ companies like Uber or Deliveroo, many of them work in areas using little technology; what unites the agency worker at ASOS, the care worker missing out on the Minimum Wage, and the lecturer employed on a zero hours contract is not an app, but the lack of rights, protection and power they experience at work. It’s this shift of risks that we think we should be talking about when we talk about insecurity at work.

This report seeks to describe the problem as a necessary first step on the road to addressing it. Future work will seek to grapple with the tricky issues of the reforms we need to employment law, social security provisions, and tax to make sure that everyone experiences decent terms and conditions at work. As we’ve set out before – we think these will need to be firmly on the agenda of the Taylor review.

But if these shifts are fundamentally about a transfer of power at work, our solutions need to address that too. You won’t be surprised to read that we think unions have a critical role to play here. Of course, unions are already winning gains for workers across the country: today’s totemic examples of insecurity, Sports Direct, Uber, or ASOS have come to prominence because unions have been organising in their workforces for better terms and conditions. Unions are also innovating to reach more workers facing insecurity and to build on the long experience of organising self-employed people in the entertainment sector and beyond.

We know there’s more we need to do ourselves – to reach out to young workers (my colleague Antonia sets out our plans to get better at that here) and to make the best of new technologies to help us do that (some more from Antonia on that topic here). But we could do much more with a better framework of union rights – it’s still a shock to me that there’s no right for Unions to access a workforce where they are not currently represented – that seems like a simple first step for a government that was serious about helping working people get the working lives they deserve.

3 Responses to What we talk about when we talk about insecure work

  1. Chris wyatt
    Dec 16th 2016, 11:59 am

    Hi Kate. I’ve worked in the gig economy for 30 years now -as a contractor and employer. I’ve also done my share of proper employment.

    I get more per hour than the “permanent” staff I work with . Control my own pension and tax arrangements , and rely on my expertise and savings for some security. The point is I’m not unhappy with the Deal. It’s higher risk and higher reward. That said there are many instances where it’s higher risk and lower reward. That’s what you need to be fighting.

  2. Karen
    Dec 17th 2016, 8:15 pm

    Very interested in this area. I’m a freelancer working for local community groups. Lovely work and what I’ve always wanted to do but I can only do this because of my living situation, would find it difficult to pay rent/mortgage. Hourly rates are fine but getting enough work is one issue, also having the mental capacity to cope with more than 4 jobs! I worry about my pension and wonder where people like me can get advice.

  3. Robin Wilson
    Jan 11th 2017, 4:01 pm

    Very well done with this, Kate. And of course it is precisely the deregulation of the labour market since Thatcher–removing the ‘red tape’–which has allowed employers to transfer risk to workers in the way you describe. There is also an implied transfer of risk to the taxpayer via the welfare system–where sick pay is unavailable and pension contributions are not made.