Work­ers fac­ing a step back in time to a darker age

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS -

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

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