Insecure Work – A Matter of Life and Death?

Insecure Work – A Matter of Life and Death?

There are approximately 3.7 million workers in the UK who the Trades Union Congress (TUC) class as being in some form of ‘insecure work’. This includes those who work on zero hours, casual and agency contracts but also those who are self-employed but whose earnings fall below the National Minimum Wage.

Insecure Workers comprise around 1 in 9 of the UK’s total workforce. They include some ‘Gig Economy’ workers but also those in diverse sectors such as care, delivery and retail. This includes many Keyworkers whose roles were rightly recognised and celebrated by the public at the start of the pandemic.

It should perhaps be noted that casual contracts are not inherently bad and work well for some people in some circumstances. I spent many happy student summers registered with various employment agencies picking up casual work around the fishfinger and Yorkshire pudding factories of my hometown. The work was easy come, easy go. It was usually there if I wanted it but I could also turn it down if I had a hangover or fancied a day out at the seaside.

But the majority of working people are not in this position. Most people have rent or mortgages, household bills and childcare costs to pay and need the certainty and security of regular and predictable work. For those in this situation insecure work gives rise to a number of difficulties.  As there is no legal requirement to offer work, employers can cancel shifts with little or no notice. Employees facing insecurity at work do not have unfair dismissal rights and are therefore vulnerable to mistreatment, particularly when raising any kind of complaint. And there are very limited rights to sick pay. Many casual workers do not get any sick pay and those who do are generally limited to the statutory minimum rate of £96.85 per week.

New research from the TUC suggests that insecure workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and face a significantly higher risk of disease and ultimately death. The COVID mortality rate for male employees in insecure work is 51 per 100,000 which is more than double the rate of 24 per 100,000 for male employees in secure employment. For women it is 25 per 100,000 against 13 per 100,000 in the general population.

There may be many reasons for this. Staff feeling insecure at work are generally more mobile and work across different workplaces so have a greater exposure to infectious disease. They also face strong disincentives to take time off if they become unwell. As noted above, the best-case scenario is sick pay at £96.85 per week but many employers do not pay sick pay at all. This means that many casual workers have no option but to attend work when sick and has led to industries which have a lot of casual workers, such as food, becoming COVID hotspots with regular outbreaks of the disease.  

What is surely undeniable is that COVID has shone an unflattering light on the way in which our society treats those who are engaged in insecure work. Could this area be reformed? The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’. The government could legislate relatively easily to ensure that there is a right to guaranteed hours for those who want them, that shifts cannot be cancelled at short notice, and that there are irreducible labour standards in respect of matters such as sick pay.

Will it happen? This looks unlikely, at least under this government. Although Ministers such as Alok Sharma have professed occasional concerns in this area, the government has just missed a golden opportunity to reform employment law in the Queens Speech. One of the great unspoken goals of Brexit was to promote greater ‘flexibility’ by moving away from European labour standards. Given their track record to date it seems unlikely that this government will want to legislate in the opposite direction.

This blog was prepared by Mark Alaszewski, solicitor at didlaw