Workers facing a step back in time to a darker age
A BROWSE through the files of Better Than Zero is like stepping into a time machine and travelling back to the days of the dark mills of the Industrial Revolution.
It’s a litany of employees begging their boss for work, staff having to pander to management in order to secure shifts, of bullying, harassment, humiliation, low wages, people living hand to mouth, and the steady erosion of pride and dignity. There are examples of female staff who have asked to change shifts being texted by their male manager saying: “My wife is out tonight, why don’t you come round and then I will change your shift.”
Better Than Zero (BTZ) was set up by the STUC to look into the growth of the gig economy in the hospitality industry – today it covers nearly every sector and its social media reach is larger than all the UK’s trade unions combined. Its role now is to investigate all forms of precarious employment – zero-hours contracts, short hour contracts, seasonal work, casual work and temporary work.
According to latest figures from the STUC, at least 10 per cent of the Scottish workforce is in insecure employment – that’s 259,000 people out of a total of 2.6 million. Some 63,000 are on zero-hours contracts, there are 38,000 in temporary work, and 158,000 in low-paid self-employment. However, the STUC points out this total does not include the estimated 90,000 people considered “underemployed”, such as those working part-time but seeking full-time work.
“The work is sold to the employee as flexible,” says Sarah Collins of BTZ, “but there is no flexibility for the worker.” Staff are expected to take what shifts are offered to them, regardless of how few or how many the hours are – if they cause a fuss it’s unlikely they will get any more work. “All the control is with the employer,” Collins adds.
One of the latest issues within precarious employment is the rise of questionable practices within a small minority of social enterprise firms – companies meant to be doing social good and often in receipt of financial support from the public purse. Some social enterprises are hiring staff on zero-hours contracts “then quickly sacking or dismissing them if they raise any concerns”.
“On the surface they look great, and there are plenty of social enterprises doing great work but the model has been perverted by a few for bad reasons,” BTZ said.
“Bogus self-employment” is another new problem – it crossed over from the gig economy where some food delivery drivers were hired on a self-employed basis and is now in many sectors. The organisation cites the case of a beautician in a nail bar who was taken on as self-employed but was told by management when to come in, when to go home, and how much to charge.
“They are not self-employed at all,” says BTZ. “It is just a cost-saving exercise as the employer is not paying tax, national insurance, sick pay, holiday pay, or pension contributions.”
Self-employment has increased hugely since the financial crash of 2008, with the largest rises among women working as cleaners, childminders and hairdressers.
The tourist industry is also a big worry for BTZ, with so many employers hiring staff on zero or short-hours contracts, or on a temporary basis. The industry receives huge state support, so BTZ feels the Scottish Government – which talks a lot about fairness for workers – should do more to tackle what is happening on its watch.
“The Scottish Government is projecting Scotland as a wonderful place to visit, but who is checking on the labour
conditions of the people in the industry?” BTZ says.
At the core of the problems with zero-hours contracts, in particular, is the bullying it seems to enable in the worst managers – staff who want to work as many hours as possible are unlikely to defend themselves if treated badly by their boss.
“Bullying is everywhere,” says BTZ. “This leads to burnout, mental health problems ... unemployment may be at an all-time low but the human cost is Dickensian. Couple all this with the housing situation and you see that precarious work leads to precarious lives. If you don’t have a steady income and are just bumping from job to job and house to house, every aspect of your life is affected.
“You aren’t going to get a mortgage, and you’ll need a guarantor for private rented accommodation. That’s why sofa surfing is rising, why people who previously lived independently are moving back in with parents. It makes people vulnerable not just to loan sharking but even sex for rent. This is what young people have come to expect in Scotland in 2018.”
Insecure work can also mean in-work poverty. Two parents in insecure jobs can be worse off financially than a family on benefits.
Precarious employment has a corrosive effect, and BTZ believes it is little wonder young people are leaving school with a jaded view of work and the opportunities open to them.
“The most depressing thing is that young people think this is the norm,” said Sarah Collins. “They know it is not right, but they don’t have any expectation of any other type of work.”
Better Than Zero said: “It is all well and good saying we want a fair work society, a fair work economy, but on the frontline it is almost laughable how far these claims and aspirations are from the way huge numbers of people make a living.”
The night-time economy, where a lot of precarious employment is found, is only set to grow in Scotland as bars and clubs push for later licensing laws. But if you are a young female member of staff on zero hours, with little power to argue for an earlier shift, then going home late at night becomes a hazard of work. Few companies pay for taxis even in the early hours of the morning.
BTZ has accounts in its files of staff finishing work at 3am and waiting for the first bus in the morning to get home, or staff going to a casino that stays open until dawn and buying one drink to nurse until public transport starts again. There are reports of female staff being harassed and intimidated on late-night streets.
As the campaign team of BTZ say of all the cases they are investigating, “is a little dignity, respect, and safety too much to ask?”
The Herald on Sunday asked the Scottish Government for comment on matters relating to precarious employment and the gig economy, but at the time of going to press none was available.
Sarah Collins of the STUC’s Better Than Zero campaign