During the last few weeks numerous stories about insecure workers – whether those working for agencies, on zero-hour contracts or toiling under bogus self-employment – being ripped off or losing their jobs have emerged.
These individual examples of vulnerable work or downright exploitation serve to highlight a scandal of national proportions that is shamefully being ignored by the government.
Since 2010, the number of agency workers in the UK has increased from 600,000 to 800,000, according to research by the Resolution Foundation.
Meanwhile, the number of self-employed workers increased from 3.25m in 2001 to 4.7m in 2016 – with unions estimating that around half a million are bogusly self-employed – even as zero hour contracts rose from 1.6m in 2016 to 1.7m in 2017.
The spread of insecure employment practices is robbing people of steady work, hard-won employment rights and the ability to manage financially and plan for the future.
They also deprive the government of £4bn a year in tax revenues – more than a quarter of the social care budget.
The recent slew of examples of workers losing out because of their precarious employment status shows that insecure work is spread right across the labour market.
In mid-April, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced that 1,000 agency workers at its Solihull plant will lose their jobs because of a slump in car sales.
While JLR is an employer with a heavily unionised workforce that pays its agency workers the same as its permanent staff, the losses highlight the precariousness of temporary workers regardless of the firm or sector they are employed in.
Yesterday (May 3), Unite members working on Staffline Recruitment Limited contracts at the Pirelli Tyres site in Carlisle began balloting over low pay and the deterioration of workers’ terms and conditions.
The union said Pirelli’s use of Staffline has created a “two tier workforce” that has left many agency staff on a “contract for services”, meaning they are effectively on zero hour agency contracts with virtually no employment protection.
The ballot followed revelations that a group of joiners in Skegness had been left more than £15,000 out of pocket by a shady umbrella agency and that the lowest paid workers on some of London’s most prestigious construction sites have more than £20 a week deducted from their wages by pay roll companies.
At the same time, Sports Direct filed a complaint accusing former MP Iain Wright, who led a parliamentary enquiry into the retailer’s employment practises, of impartiality because he received a donation from Unite.
MPs concluded that owner Mike Ashley ran Sports Direct like a “Victorian workhouse” and treated its zero-hour and agency staff, many of whom had been paid less than the minimum wage, “without dignity or respect”.
Unite head of media Alex Flynn tweeted that Ashley “would do better to keep his promises on zero hours and weaning Sports Direct off the use of exploitative agency contracts at Shirebrook rather than picking at a two year scab”.
Additionally, gig economy company Hermes – which is facing a tribunal this week to decide if its self-employed couriers are in fact employees – has come under fire for allegedly “supplying information to HMRC that is untrue and which offers an inaccurate representation of the couriers’ employment relationship with the company.”
Commenting on the rise of insecure work, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Tuner said, “In recent years we have seen an acceleration in the race to the bottom on our pay and working conditions, with companies finding increasingly creative ways of taking advantage of loopholes in our employment rights and tax system.
“We should be closing the loopholes, strengthening trade union and employment rights positively and, through an investment-not-cuts economic policy, creating and growing decent jobs in this country.”