As part of our series of Challenge Poverty Week blogs, STUC Policy Officer Sarah Collins discusses our forthcoming research, “Precarious Work, Precarious Lives”.
Poverty is not an accident. It is the result of deliberate ideological policy decisions and practices. The way in which work is organised is one of the key drivers of poverty.
The ten-year period since the financial crisis represents the UK’s longest pay squeeze in 200 years. This stagnant wage growth impacts particularly on women, young people, disabled people and ethnic minorities. In this time, precarious work has increased throughout the labour market. The number of gig workers has doubled across the UK in the past three years whilst income inequality continues to increase.
Precarity is not new in employment but the last decade has seen an increase in the range of sectors experiencing this form of working. These precarious ways of working are often used as tools of exploitation and control by the employer and this insecurity, coupled with high rates of low pay, creates more insecure living arrangements and increased debt. People are now living precariously as well as working precariously.
The STUC is publishing a report, ‘Precarious Work, Precarious Lives’, on 22nd October following research conducted with workers in distribution, hospitality, retail and creative industries. Three themes – Time, Control, and Trust – emerged.
Precarious workers often face a double burden with respect to both ‘time poverty’ and ‘financial poverty’. Workers on low hour contracts receive have less wages, but spend more time looking for other work or taking on a second job. When workers are on low pay, they will often end up working more than 48 hours per week in order to make ends meet. In many cases, the research showed the time-consuming battle to get the best shifts and rotas saps unpaid time from workers, contributes to stress, and leads to exhaustion. Dealing with the issue of time was a first order issue for workers.
A young man working in hospitality discussed how his whole life felt controlled by working in jobs with low pay and high hours. “Aye, it’s looking quite bleak like, this idea of a debt occurring to sort of get through despite working full time hours. Like I do a 72 hour week, I’m thinking that should cover at least two weeks out of this next month coming and it’s like nah, overdraft it is. And that isn’t even with nights out or anything, that’s just basic getting by. My mum works as a part-time carer so we’re putting both of our wages together so we can pay our monthly rent and the way we, we have no control, we can’t say no I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do out and do this or let’s go for dinner or let’s get something nice in the night, it’s just always, always thinking about money.”
Precarity (from zero hours contracts, low pay, gig work, and casual work) as a business model is a decision made by an employer, and is often used as a tool of control by the employer. The creation of mistrust and competition between workers is a form of control which employers use to perpetuate forms of precarious work.
However, an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship is also possible in precarious settings. This solidarity is an essential foundation that is needed to create strong trade unions which are key in ensuring effective collective bargaining structures. These union structures, which allow workers to negotiate effectively with employers on all terms and conditions, drive up wages and therefore have a direct impact on mitigating against poverty.
 New PAYE data shows employment income in Scotland averaged 2.7% in the 9 months to December 2018 – HMRC (April 2019) Earnings and Employment Statistics from Pay As You Earn Real Time Information: Experimental Statistics April 2014 to December 2018 Quarterly estimates from HMRC PAYE RTI administrative system
 Including zero hours, short hour contracts, casual contracts, fixed term contracts, work via agencies, and bogus self-employment
As part of Challenge Poverty Week 2019, the STUC Youth Committee are hosting an event, “Power Not Precarity: Creating a Young Workers Charter” on the 12th of October at the STUC Centre. You can find more details on the event here.