- A UK study found that one-third of young people who became unemployed during the pandemic are now on a zero-hours contract or working unsteady hours.
- Despite the Great Resignation, there’s little evidence of employers incentivising workers with job security.
- While many people value the flexibility of gig work or zero-hours contracts, it increases financial instability. ‘Part-time limbo’ is growing — what does this mean for the future of work?
The media tends to discuss flexible working in a positive light, and in the context of office-based roles. True, flexibility works well for some people’s circumstances. But some of us prefer – or need – the security and stability of regular hours.
In February, The New York Times shared Brenda Garcia’s story. Brenda works in the hospitality industry at Chipotle in Queens, New York City, and has struggled to secure more than 20 hours of work per week over the last couple of months.
As a result, she’s finding it difficult to keep up with her expenses.
“It’s not enough for me – they’re not giving me a stable job,” she said. “They’re not giving me the hours and the days I’m supposed to be getting.”
Her experience isn’t a unique one.
Young people are returning to insecure work
In the UK, Resolution Foundation’s Leaving Lockdown report reveals that 33% of young people who were employed pre-Covid but became unemployed in the pandemic are now on a temporary or zero-hours contract, doing agency work, or in a job with unsteady hours.
This compares with 12% of young people who remained in work throughout the pandemic.
A zero-hours contract is one that doesn’t require the employer to provide a minimum amount of working hours; the employee isn’t obliged to accept working hours offered either.
They’re nothing new.
The beginnings of zero-hours contracts can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, when organisations started to outsource more work to contractors, franchisees, and temp agencies.
At the same time, businesses were starting to hire employees into part-time positions as opposed to full-time ones, particularly in industries like hospitality and retail.
According to Chris Tilly of the University of California, and Françoise Carré of the University of Massachusetts, the shift to part-time work was motivated by more women entering the workforce, many of whom wanted to work part-time so they could be at home for their children when they returned from school.
“A light bulb went on one day,” Dr. Tilly said. “[Employers realised] ‘If we’re expanding part-time schedules, we don’t have to offer benefits, we can offer a lower wage rate.’”
Then, in the 1980s, scheduling software was introduced to enable employers to forecast customer demand, and they started to staff their businesses accordingly.
Zero hours contracts today
In the UK, over 1 million workers are now on zero-hours contracts – a rise of 40,000 over the year, according to Labour Market Statistics from October to December 2021.
Employees on zero-hours contracts are entitled to the same rights as standard employees, such as the national minimum wage and holiday pay. However, a zero-hours employee’s work can be cut off at very short notice, resulting in financial insecurity.
Some employees favour zero-hours contracts, such as those seeking a lot of flexibility and occasional earnings. Flexible employment can suit those who are engaged in education, semi-retired, or looking to “top up” their earnings, for example.
Zero-hours contracts can enable employers to operate more sustainably during seasonal dips and peaks because they don’t have to pay wages when the volume of work is low.
The future of the gig economy
Gig work is also on the up.
Research by the University of Hertfordshire, BritainThinks and the TUC has found that 22.6% of workers have taken gig jobs through an app or website at least once before, while the proportion of workforce taking these jobs at least once per week has risen from 5.8% in 2016 to 14.7% in 2021.
Self-employed gig workers don’t have the same rights as employed workers on zero-hours contracts. Many gig jobs come without protections such as minimum wage and lack the benefits associated with employment, such as holiday pay.
Many countries in Europe are currently deliberating the status of gig workers, including Uber drivers. Are they self-employed contractors? Or should they be classed as employed and entitled to the same protections and benefits as “in-house” workers?
In 2021, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers must be treated as workers rather than self-employed contractors. The court found that UK Uber drivers are entitled to paid holidays, minimum wage, and pensions, because Uber assigns their rates and rides and disciplines the drivers based on ratings.
On 15 February 2022, the Belgian federal government struck a labour deal that would impose new obligations on gig economy platforms and set criteria for determining their workers’ job status, after existing laws are amended.
Can unions transform the future of insecure work?
Despite the Great Resignation, with companies across a variety of sectors struggling to fill vacancies, there’s little evidence of employers incentivising workers with job security.
Some say that the labour movement, or unions, will be critical in shaping a more equal future of work; one that provides financial security for all employees. Unions advocate for workers rights and things like pay increases, and provide workers with a voice.
Traditionally, unions haven’t been as popular with younger workers engaged in more informal work. But as employment becomes increasingly insecure, this is changing. Although union membership in the US is at an all-time low, in Philadelphia, for example, a new generation of unions is emerging, led by workers in the hospitality industry.
Dermot Delude-Dix, a 33-year-old organiser with Unite HERE Local 274, which represents service workers at hotels, stadiums and the Philadelphia International Airport, told Philadelphia Magazine:
“The people organising themselves right now see themselves as part of a movement…I think it’s more likely that if these efforts are successful, they will continue to fuel a movement for justice in civil rights, police reform, equality.”
On Monday 7 February, the Biden administration set out 70 recommendations to encourage union membership in the US. The recommendations include moves to make it easier for many federal employees to join unions and eliminate barriers for union organisers to talk with workers on federal property.
The report was compiled by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. An excerpt from the report reads:
“Researchers have found that today’s union households earn up to 20% more than non-union households, with an even greater union advantage for workers with less formal education and workers of color.
“Meanwhile, research has shown that growing economic inequality, growing pay gaps for women and workers of color, and declining voice in our democracy for working class Americans are all caused, in part, by the declining percentage of workers represented by unions.”