From the TUC

Precarious work – the union experience

10 Mar 2017, by in Labour market

What is insecure work and has it increased?

This blog examines precarious or insecure work, how it manifests itself in the workplace and whether insecure work practices have increased. Insecure work includes:

  • agency work or seasonal, casual, temporary work
  • people on zero-hours contracts and
  • low-paid self-employed workers.

Recent TUC research has found that insecure work has increased in the last five years, with over 3 million people now working in insecure jobs; this represents 1 in 10 workers in the UK.

What is the trade union experience of insecure work?

In the last few months, the TUC has started regular interviews with a panel of trade union representatives on key workplace issues. While not a random sample of all workplaces, this research gives us a flavour of key issues union representatives are dealing with in a range of sectors. Of the trade union representatives recently interviewed we found the following.

  • Around three-quarters of respondents agreed that they have seen some level of increase in insecure work in their workplace.
  • The rate of attempts by employers to increase insecure work is to differing degrees depending on the sector and workplace.
  • Of those who cited it, the most common forms of insecure work were the use of agency workers.
  • Some industries use interns and people on work experience and pay them low wages.
  • Three respondents said that they had not seen any attempts to move towards more insecure work in their workplace or elsewhere.
  • Only one respondent mentioned a specific increase in zero hours contracts.

Below I look at how insecure work was seen by in the different sectors of union representatives we interviewed.

Construction, manufacturing and energy

More than half of the total respondents work in the construction, manufacturing and energy industries. Here the increase in insecure work – in particular, the use of agency workers – is evident.

Respondents cited the move of their companies from having direct employees to having workers, noticeably through agency workers.

‘… as people come off the books, once people leave, they haven’t been replaced. They’re instead bringing in agency workers and not employing [workers] directly. About 10 years ago there were 200 men on the books, now there’s 100.’

Respondents cited the companies’ rationale of bringing in agency workers to protect the jobs of permanent workers.

‘The management rationale was that they needed to match the ebb and flow output, so if there’s a big order, we could get people in and that way we wouldn’t make anyone redundant… management keep trying to make it sound like they’re doing us a favour by not making us redundant’

This often had negative impacts for the union, as well as for individual workers.

 ‘This is a pressure on us as a bargaining unit because agency workers are under threat all the time, they can’t take industrial action, so you have a smaller union group with less bargaining power.’

Some respondents talked about the unfair and sometimes illegal expectations placed on agency workers to carry out their work.

 ‘…they [agency companies] expect us to do so much, like bring your own PPE [personal protective equipment] to work– as if that’s normal, it’s out of order.’

The low rates of pay for agency workers were also discussed.

‘They weren’t paying enough for what the union rate is – the agency takes such a big chunk of it [that] there’s not enough left for the guy who’s actually working, who’s turning up at 6am and working to 6pm at night.’

One respondent cited the impact on agency workers – notably, that the company or agency say that they can get someone else in to do the job instead.

 ‘They expect difficult things from you, and if you don’t like it they just say we’ll get someone else in… employers let agencies do the dirty work.’

One respondent cited an example of an employer improving contracts to guarantee secure work for different job grades in the company.

‘The main principles are direct employment, not just for the engineering sector but also the civil sector. This is ground breaking for civil construction industry – normally the civil sector is pretty unregulated, lots of self-employment, agency workers, umbrella companies.’

However, changing the attitudes of the agency companies themselves can be a lot trickier than influencing the employers.

 ‘[We] are aware that if they [agencies] got away with it now [using agency workers in civil sector], a precedence would be set, and then it’s very difficult to change things.’ 

Union success in responding to this increase in agency workers has been mixed.

‘…we are doing everything in our power to change these behaviours and bring in a new way of working.’

 ‘We have challenged management about it but they won’t have it. We wanted to set a time – maximum 3 years for agency work, if someone is there longer than this it’s quite obvious there’s a job available.’

However, some respondents in these sectors cited a strong union presence as being a reason why the number of agency workers is low.

‘Not at all. Few agency staff here and they are paid at a decent rate.’

Retail sector

The retail sector presented a mixed picture. Some respondents presented a positive view. One employer used agency staff at busy times and said this was not disadvantageous to permanent staff. One employer used agency staff and said the union had successfully negotiated with the employer.

‘Can hand on heart say that [employer] treats its staff fairly and with respect. Do have agency [workers], but not at detriment to the permanent staff; just there for busy/peak times… Everyone is treated with respect and that is reflected in the terms and conditions’.

Other respondents gave a less positive account. One respondent referred to a retailer using temporary workers at particularly busy times of the year. One referred to the use of those on work experience paid £40 per week. And one referred to their workplace while not using zero hours contracts they did use flexible working hours, which were bordering on zero hours contracts.

‘There are no zero hour contracts or agency staff. Here everyone works 7.5 hour contracts that are flexi. It is not great for workers, even though we are unionised. It is not a great thing that there’s not enough work – something needs to be done – especially in the retail sector. It’s almost the same at zero hour contracts. 7.5hours per week – and there’s a caveat of the hours being spread over. And if there is any overtime it depends if you are available. People have 2-3 days they are not even flexible hours.’

IT and publishing

The IT and publishing sectors also gave a mixed view of terms and conditions. One respondent said no insecure working practices were taking place.

‘No, I haven’t seen this happen yet. No one has discussed this.’

One respondent in the publishing sector said the union had successfully achieved better terms and conditions for agency workers.

However, there were also examples of insecure work displayed in both IT and publishing. Both sectors employed graduates, apprentices and interns.

‘…the grads and apprentices have significantly worse terms and conditions; they didn’t get the pay rise they asked for, are more likely to be on a temporary contract, they get the standard redundancy package and worse pension arrangements.’

One respondent at a publishing company referred to their workplace using near to zero hours contracts.

‘Agency is here, practically zero hours contracts – but that hasn’t got any worse or any better. Redundancies [are] coming but no direct correlation. The agency workers have been here for 10-12 years.’

Other notable findings

One respondent reported that their company employed agency staff and they believed the increase in the living wage is having an adverse impact on agency workers as the employer is trying to make savings elsewhere.

‘[Agency workers] received [T]exts at 2am not to come into work; or on their way to work they’re told shift won’t start for another hour so they have to sit in the canteen not being paid. Have advised them to complain but they’re too scared that they won’t get a shift. More recently [the company] has tried to change shift allowance; trying to consolidate hours to compensate for having to pay the Living Wage.’

How unions are addressing insecure working practices

Some respondents gave interesting examples of how unions have sought to avoid and address the use of insecure work practices. A respondent had been employed with the employer to recruit agency staff and sign people up to union membership

‘We do use agency staff. We have successfully negotiated with [employer] to recruit them and to inside the union. It’s given us more power to be looked after better. The process here [was] done over 12 to 18 months. Membership rate has increased in agency staff to 100%.’

Another respondent referred to negotiating with the employer to improve agency workers’ terms and conditions after a set length of time.

About 6 years ago the company introduced agency staff…The union negotiated an agency workers contract that said that any agency workers who are taken on have to become temporary staff after 4 months, and after 12 months are taken on as permanent staff’

The way forward

In an economy where precarious work practices are increasing, our research interviews are illustrative that these practices do exist, even in unionised work places. The most prevalent type of insecure work occurring among the respondents we spoke to was the use of agency workers, to a greater or lesser degree. Yet there are also some signs that unions have worked positively to address the introduction of agency workers so that both permanent staff and agency workers do not experience detrimental terms and conditions.