Turning up just to be sent home without pay: Life in insecure work
Imagine turning up to work only to be sent home without pay. It would be frustrating, wouldn’t it?
It would be more frustrating still if you had already paid for childcare that day; or if you’d cancelled other plans so you could work; or if not receiving that day’s pay would make it difficult to make ends meet that week.
For millions of people working in insecure jobs, this is what they face every day.
In a recent survey, the TUC heard from hundreds of people about their experiences of insecure work. Over the next four days, we’ll look at four themes that emerged in the responses:
- Unpredictable hours
- Fluctuating pay leading to financial difficulties
- Fear of turning down shifts
- Sick pay and holiday entitlements
A lack of control
These themes are not unconnected or disparate. They overlap and intersect.
For example, many workers were frustrated about their inability to make plans. But they felt that shifts had to be accepted, because they needed the money or feared that they would lose out on future shifts. For similar reasons, many workers were hesitant about taking holiday or sick leave.
I can’t afford to take holidays or be off sick as it means a lower wage that month.
Each theme is underpinned by a lack of control, a sense of being disposable, and a power dynamic that favours the employer. Respondents frequently mentioned frustration at favouritism or unfair employment practices, but felt there was nothing that could be done about these.
Even those who were more positive would mention that their current situation didn’t feel permanent: it could change for the worse at any moment.
The most common complaint respondents made was never knowing when they would be working. Many talked of being given rotas late, having shifts cancelled on the day, or even being sent home after arriving at work.
I get given shifts last minute and other times turn up only to be told to go home (without pay).
One bartender working on a zero-hours contract (ZHC) told us how her shifts would often be cancelled on the same day. Even when she did work, she’d be sent home as soon as it wasn’t busy. Short shifts would barely cover the travel costs to work. At the start of each working day, therefore, she had no idea if she’d be working for zero or seven hours, or how much money she would make.
This was a common story.
Such unpredictably particularly affects those who have to arrange childcare. Organising last-minute childcare is fussy and expensive. If a shift is shorter than expected, or cancelled when a worker arrives, this leaves parents out of pocket due to losing work for meeting childcare charges.
No time for a social life
Unpredictable and long hours affect workers’ social lives. Some described the difficulty of never being able to commit to social plans, and the subsequent isolation they felt. A respondent working in catering on a ZHC told us:
I can’t make plans for social events as I have been threatened with being fired if I can’t show up on short notice. This led me to be increasingly isolated from friends and family.
Workers reported that uncertainty was caused not just by not knowing if they would be working but also by not knowing how long they would be working for. Respondents told us that they often didn’t receive the number of hours work they expected or needed.
At the other extreme, others were expected to work excessively.
In a lot of instances, workers found that hours flit between the two extremes. They worked many hours one week, only to get little or none the week after.
One respondent working in catering told us that her hours are “erratic”. One week, she could be working barely enough hours to pay her rent. The next, she would be working over 50 hours.
This wasn’t a unique experience. Others told us that they could be given anywhere between 12 and 60 hours in any given week, often with no explanation.
Unpredictability was sometimes seen as the result of favouritism. Some told us that the number of hours they received depended on the opinion their boss had of them. A retail worker said:
Hours are never guaranteed. It depends whether my manager likes me that week or not.
Read more: What are the financial implications for workers of unpredictable work?.