The Personal Impact of Precarious Work

Our policy team explores the personal impact of precarious and exploitative work, as young union members in ‘precarious’ work today took their experiences and demands to the Scottish Parliament for a ministerial meeting with Economy Secretary, Keith Brown. 

With around 10% of the Scottish workforce[1] in insecure work, not including bogus self-employment, our job as trade unionists will become increasingly difficult unless we recruit and retain precarious workers to our movement.  We either ensure good quality jobs where workers have effective voice, opportunity, security, respect and fulfilment for all, or not at all.

The first thing we can do is bring together lived experiences. Instead of separating a housing struggle from worker’s struggle, we need to ensure the campaigns are linked. A young worker paid the discriminatory minimum wage on a fixed term contract and paying extortionate rent faces numerous and interlinked barriers to organising collectively.

That is why the Better than Zero campaign and Scottish Union Learning’s Young Workers’ Project has teamed up with Living Rent tenants’ union to provide a platform for people to bring together fundamentally important aspects of their lives in order to campaign for working and living conditions they want to see; not what bosses or landlords want. Only by ensuring the space and resources for people to organise collectively around these issues can real control be returned to working people.

With private rent in Scotland increasing at 4% above inflation[2], private rental costs are now 19.9% higher in 2017 than they were in 2010.[3] They are over 30% higher now in Glasgow and Lothians. At the same time, wages have stagnated[4] meaning that more people are spending a larger portion of their wages on keeping a roof over their heads. This is particularly true of younger generations who also face more precarious working lives.

housing graph

Whether it is agency work, seasonal, fixed-term, or zero-hours, the issue of precarious work affects us all. Permanent, well trained and skilled jobs with sustainable terms and conditions, such as university and college lecturers, becoming causalised; “jobs for life” within local authorities becoming fixed term; or more women enduring precarious working lives has an impact on all of society, not just on the worker themselves.

Knowing the systemic reasons for insecure and precarious work is one thing. However, understanding the personal impact of leading a precarious life is paramount to bringing more people in to trade unions.

The correlation between increasing precarity of work and a decline in trade union membership is not coincidence. But it is important, for our labour movement, to understand this.

ZHC graph
Source: author’s analysis based on ONS and LFS data for the UK

Without appreciating who has insecure work and how this affects other aspects of life such as housing and relationships, the trade union movement will not be able to effectively gear recruitment campaigns towards those in insecure work. Nor will we be able to retain them or support them in becoming active leaders of the labour movement.

We know that self-employment is more prevalent amongst older people; around 40% of those aged 65 and over who work are self-employed[5] whilst over one third of people on zero hours are in the 16-24 age range and around one-fifth are in full-time education.[6]  Agency workers are significantly over-represented among younger groups, with close to half aged under-35.  The number of self-employed people with a disability has grown by 13% since Q1 2014, broadly in line with the increase in the numbers of disabled employees but considerably quicker than growth among non-disabled workers.[7]  We also know that those on zero hour contracts are three times more likely to want more work[8] which indicates that the pay for these jobs per hour is not enough to live on.

Understanding the personal impact on these demographics of precarity, which may increase or transform with the advancement of new technologies, is imperative for appreciating how the workplace is experienced in order to collectivise the power of workers.

[1] 274,000

[2] CPI

[3] Private Sector Rent Statistics, Scotland, 2010 to 2017



[6] ONS Contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: April 2018

[7] Resolution Foundation, “Is self-employment Taylor-made for people with disabilities” February 2017

[8] ONS Contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: April 2018

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