Constantly on call: Life in insecure work
To their advocates, zero hours contracts offer flexibility for both the employer and employee.
But such a simple summary strips away the human aspects and power dynamics that make insecure work so stressful for the employee.
Hundreds of people employed in insecure work recently told us about their experiences. What they told us was strongly at odds with the idea that zero hours contracts allow workers to pick and choose when they work.
Implicit threats and the loss of work
The reality is that those on zero hours contracts feel compelled to work whenever asked. If work is turned down, there is an implicit threat that they could lose future work.
A care assistant working on a zero hours contract told us that she feels pressured to take on extra shifts, even if they’re offered only an hour beforehand. She worries that turning down any work will mean that she won’t be offered work in the future.
She wasn’t the only one who worried. A waitress on a zero hours contract told us:
Turning down any offered shifts implies unreliability and usually sees hours drastically cut.
This is not limited to those on zero hours contracts. The self-employed have a similar fear of turning down work when they don’t know where their next lot of work is coming from.
Explicit threats and hostile atmospheres
The threat of losing work is sometimes implicit but often blatant. For some, fears of turning down a shift were reinforced by threatening and overbearing employers or hostile atmospheres.
One worker told us that turning down a shift led to those in the office being “snotty”. Some felt pressured and forced into accepting shifts. Others were threatened with being fired if they didn’t accept a shift or work when requested.
Informal exclusivity still exists
Those employed on zero hours contracts cannot legally be stopped from taking up work for another organisation.
However, a theme in what we heard from insecure workers was the need to constantly be available – just in case an employer offers work. Workers told us about having to drop everything if their boss gave them a ring. Is working for another company really an option if you need to be constantly available for each employer?
I hardly get work but always have to be available to work just in case they phone. When they do phone I have to drop everything and say yes otherwise I can’t pay bills.
If those on zero hours contracts must be willing and available for shifts, an informal exclusivity seemingly still exists.
We are expected to be available when needed and just wait when we are not needed.
Power dynamics favour the employer
This all indicates a power dynamic that favours the employer. While it is true that a worker can turn down a shift, there are consequences for doing so.
These could be immediate: turning down one shift while working in precarious employment means you don’t get paid that day.
However, there’s also the risk of losing future work and, therefore, losing even more money in the long-term.
This places power in the hands of the employer. They have a flexible workforce that can be used to meet demand, or lack of demand, at any given time. Employees, on the other hand, are stuck in a situation where they accept any shift either because they need the money or because they fear upsetting their boss.
Falling out of favour with your boss can lead to no work for a while, or even no work ever again.
If the manager is in a bad mood with you, you’ll get either none or minimal shifts the next week.
Fear of turning down a shift, and a need to always be available, also manifests itself in an unwillingness to take holiday of sick leave.
We’ll look at this in more detail tomorrow, in the final post in our series on life in insecure work.