Regular employees know how much they will earn each month; agency staff might have to borrow to pay the bills if their hours come up short
Regular employees know how much they will earn each month; agency staff might have to borrow to pay the bills if their hours come up short © Alamy

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In a ready-meals factory in the British city of Sheffield, workers stand side by side putting sausages in pots before a depositor adds sauce and a machine adds mashed potato. But there is an invisible divide on this production line: a seam of inequality that runs through the UK and other countries, too.

Some workers are regular employees with 39-hour-a-week contracts, while others are agency staff employed by a third party. If the line shuts halfway through the night, the permanent staff will be redeployed or asked to clean until the end of their shift. The agency staff will be sent home immediately with no more pay but, because the first bus isn’t until 5am, most will sit through the rest of the night in the canteen.

When they get home, they will wait for a 10am text message from the agency to confirm the next shift. “It’s not fair when they know he’s done nights and he’s in bed,” one regular employee told me of her agency worker colleague on the same production line. “If he doesn’t confirm within half an hour, he gets cancelled.”

When economists and politicians talk about inequality, they are usually comparing people’s incomes or wealth. But inequality of security is important, too. These sausage-and-mash workers do the exact same task for the same wage as the others, but no one could claim they are equal. The regular employees know how much they will earn each month; the agency staff might have to borrow to pay the bills if their hours come up short. The regulars can arrange childcare in advance; the agency staff have to scramble for it, or pay for it only to find that they didn’t need it. My interviewee could buy a weekly saver bus pass because she knew her shifts in advance; her agency colleagues had to pay for pricier daily tickets instead.

It’s hard to measure or map the extent of insecure jobs because the statistics don’t capture the most important factor: power. A person on an agency contract who can say “no” to a shift without consequences is in an entirely different position from one who knows they will never be offered work again if they decline. An agency worker in a buoyant local economy is different from one in a place where agency work is all that seems to be available.

“I keep trying to find work, not a job, because you don’t find a job here any more,” one worker in a deprived part of Nottingham, in England’s Midlands, told researchers in a project from Nottingham Trent University and the Renewal Trust.

That said, the best estimate is that roughly 5m people in the UK were in some form of low-paid, insecure employment before the pandemic hit, according to the Living Wage Foundation. This includes the low-earning self-employed, those on zero-hours contracts and agency and temporary workers (excluding those who said they didn’t want a permanent job).

Official data show they were much more likely to lose their jobs when the economy was shut down. This is what you would expect: “contingent labour”, as agencies sometimes call it, is there to cushion permanent employees from peaks and troughs in demand.

In financial markets, the more risk you take, the greater the potential reward. But in today’s labour market, the opposite is often true. More than one-third of staff in sales, care and elementary jobs (all low-paid sectors) report being anxious about “unexpected changes to my hours of work”, compared with one-fifth of those in higher-paid professional jobs.

Universal credit, the UK state income top-up for the lowest-paid, compounds the problem: a worker with consistent pay each month can receive more than one with fluctuating earnings, even if their annual pay is the same. In addition, the lowest-paid workers aren’t entitled to statutory sick pay.

Does it have to be this way? Aviva, the insurer, and Standard Life Aberdeen, the asset manager, this week became the UK’s first accredited “living hours” employers: a voluntary scheme whereby employers promise to provide at least four weeks’ notice for every shift, with guaranteed payment if shifts are cancelled in that period. Of course, it’s easier for a financial services company to do this than a food factory, but the lessons they have learnt are useful. They were forced to plan better, for example, which had benefits for the business, too.

“Playing with people’s working hours should not be the line of least resistance, it should be the last resort,” said Stuart Wright, Aviva’s property and facilities director.

Employers and the state have a role to play in fixing this problem. If we’re going to get through the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to recognise the importance of security and spread it around more fairly. We can’t make risk disappear, but nor should we pile it disproportionately on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.

Letter in response to this column:

Vulnerable workers are hidden from view / From Deborah Cross, Sudbury, Suffolk, UK

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