Shining a spotlight on precarious work

Covid 19 exposes insecure work crisis

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The coronavirus crisis has shone a spotlight on the precarious nature of jobs across the UK, especially in counties such as Dorset.

More workers than ever are on zero-hours contracts in the region, which relies heavily on agricultural and seasonal jobs.

Research by the TUC showed that more than 16,000 workers in Dorset are employed on controversial zero-hours contracts, and the number is increasing, in line with many other parts of the country.

An estimated 6,000 workers are employed in agricultural jobs in Dorset, with a significant proportion on casual or other non-direct contracts.

Some of the poorest and most deprived areas of the country are in South Dorset, which also has one of the lowest average household income figures.

Steve Preddy, Unite’s South West Regional Secretary, knows better than anyone how people struggle if they have insecure work, as over 100,000 are on zero-hour contracts across the region, almost 4 per cent of the working population, one of the highest in the UK.

“It is a serious problem, especially in major centres such as Bournemouth and Poole,” he told UNITElive.

“Counties like Dorset rely on pockets of industry such as agriculture, local government and some shipbuilding.”

Steve believes it has become attractive for firms to employ staff on zero-hours contracts, with around one million people across the UK now working on such a contract.

It has been well documented that workers on a zero-hours contract don’t receive the same protection against unfair dismissal and have fewer rights for flexible work and time off, not to mention issues over pay.

“It is a very difficult existence,” says Steve. “Unite has been tackling this head on as we try to make employment permanent for all workers, and make young people in particular aware of the disadvantages of zero hours contracts.

“Colleges and universities are feeding grounds for attracting young people to work flexibly, but we are encouraging them to get organised, especially in areas such as fast food delivery.”

Many workers on zero-hours contracts don’t know if they will have enough money to pay the following month’s rent or food bills as a result of the huge growth in gig economy and other insecure jobs.

Kev Terry, a lorry driver and Unite’s South West regional chairman, says many casual staff in the local agricultural sector are migrant workers.

“Local employment is pretty scarce, and people understandably want secure, full-time work, but many of the jobs on offer are on insecure, zero-hours contracts.

“We deal with cases where people turn up for work but are told there is no work for them that day.”

Kev says it’s like a throwback to the construction industry in the 1960s, when employers were given tax concessions to allow them to promote the so-called “lump”.

This was the practice where workers were no longer seen as employees, whose income tax and National Insurance was deducted from wages and paid to the Inland Revenue.

Instead a worker would be regarded as “self-employed” and paid a lump sum of money for the work that they did each day or week, hence “working on the lump”. The individual worker would be responsible for paying tax and NI, not the employer.

Janet Wall, Unite South West regional officer agrees, saying people are now often glued to their mobile phones, waiting to receive a call or text telling them there is work available that day.

“It is a modern day version of a despicable form of employment which should have been consigned to history. It has merely returned in a different form.

“This region has many businesses which employ staff on zero-hours contracts, including hospitality, clubs and hotels.

“It suits the employer, but it doesn’t help people pay the bills or build their life. I have a full-time job, with a pension, sick pay and holidays – my son doesn’t know that kind of work exists anymore.”

Janet also tries to persuade employers to avoid hiring staff on zero-hours contracts. The efforts of Janet, and other Unite officials, have been made considerably more difficult after the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in England.

The non-departmental body regulated wages for farm workers under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, until it was abolished in the Conservative led government’s “bonfire of the quangos” in 2013.

Labour argued that getting rid of the board would lead to a “race to the bottom” over wages, with farm workers seeing their pay erode over time.

Diana Holland, Unite assistant general secretary for food and agriculture at the time, said it was a “dark day” for rural workers who had been “hung out to dry” by the government.

The days haven’t got any brighter since then.

“Since the board was abolished, the employment conditions of farm workers have definitely been eroded,” said Janet.

“Many workers are now living from week to week, just scraping by, as unscrupulous employers can just cast staff aside.”

Unite’s officials across the region work tirelessly to recruit members in the traditionally difficult gig economy, with the age-old message about sticking together to improve their pay and conditions.

But union membership is generally low in many parts of the low paid, insecure, zero-hours world which too many workers live in.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the job of recruiting union members more difficult, although maybe it has also exposed the crisis of low-paid, insecure work which has been allowed to grow in the past decade.

Unite will be leading the way in the battle to reshape the economy and society once the war against the virus is won.

This feature was due to have appeared in the Unite Landworker magazine 

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