The UK is facing a quality of work crisis. The growing use of zero-hours contracts has been widely covered, but our new findings from analysis commissioned by the Living Wage Foundation show that the problem of unpredictable hours and pay is in fact much more widespread.

We found that over 1 million people in low paid jobs (earning less than the real Living Wage) have volatile pay and hours — meaning they don’t know what their earnings will be month on month. This is three times the number of people that report being on low-paid, zero-hours contracts. We found that a further 1.3 million people in low-paid work have predictable pay but their working hours change, often making it harder to plan around other costs like childcare and travel.

Women are most affected by this type of low-paid, insecure work where pay and/​or hours are in flux. There are 566,000 women with volatile hours and pay earning less than the real Living Wage, compared with 454,000 men. When looking at low-paid, zero-hours jobs specifically, there are nearly twice as many women (219,000) reporting to be on these contracts and earning less than the real Living Wage, than men (138,000). 

Having a lack of control or predictability over your working life — whilst having to navigate the risks and stresses of being on low pay — is now the norm for many.

1 million people in low paid jobs (earning less than the real Living Wage) have volatile pay and hours

We found that a massive 1 in 6 workers (over 5 million people) are experiencing low pay alongside some form of insecurity at work — whether volatile hours and wages, unpredictable shifts, or casual, self-employed and other non-permanent contracts.

Work insecurity, exacerbated by low pay, has a raft of knock on effects on health, finances, personal life and rights that serve to further disempower and marginalise these workers.

Decades of research demonstrates that job insecurity harms our mental and physical health as well as our personal wellbeing — over and above its impact on income. In addition, evidence suggests that workers experiencing insecurity at work find it more difficult to enforce the rights they have for fear of losing their jobs. This disempowerment is amplified by the fact that people in precarious and insecure work are less likely to be in a union — with young people increasingly exposed (union membership among 16 – 24 year olds has halved in the last 20 years.)

Lack of voice at work can create a self-reinforcing cycle of insecurity by leaving people vulnerable to malpractice from employers in relation to the rights they do have. A recent Citizens Advice report revealed the extent to which some employers go to avoid paying sick leave: from cancelling shifts after someone has called in sick, to reducing their working hours so they fail to meet the minimum weekly pay level required to be eligible for sick leave.

Work insecurity, exacerbated by low pay, has a raft of knock on effects on health

In effect, employment rights and the laws that enforce them become redundant if people feel too insecure, misinformed or isolated to speak up.

This is why the Living Wage Foundation’s new Living Hours benchmark, launched today, is an important intervention. Working much like the Living Wage stamp, to get the new accreditation employers must commit to providing workers with at least 4 weeks’ notice of their working hours, with guaranteed payment if shifts are cancelled within this notice period. They must always provide a right to a contract that reflects actual hours worked and a guaranteed minimum of 16 hours a week (unless the worker requests otherwise).

The extent to which we have traded in work quality for low unemployment levels in recent years is becoming increasingly clear. There are 5 million people today experiencing insecurity at work whilst earning less than is required to cover basic living costs. With the promise of work hard and make a decent living” broken for so many, measures such as the new Living Hours mark are more necessary than ever.

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