Leading charity warns of workers’ rights crisis as ‘new normal’ pushes employees to breaking point

Average worker is now performing nine or more unpaid hours of overtime a week

Kate Hughes
Money Editor
Tuesday 22 December 2020 13:05
Virus Outbreak Unemployment Benefits
Virus Outbreak Unemployment Benefits

Gig economy, agency and zero-hours staff face worse employment rights violations than the rest of the working population, Citizens Advice has warned as the number of people on zero-hours contracts reaches an all-time high.

As Covid continues to ravage the labour market, a million people are now considered “insecure workers” with no guaranteed income from their bosses, more than half of whom – alongside gig and agency workers – class themselves as key workers.  

Last week’s new employment figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal the number of payroll employees has fallen by almost 820,000 since February this year and a large increase in the unemployment rate between August and October this year while the employment rate continues to fall.

It also reported that the number of people away from work because of the pandemic and receiving no pay has also fallen and levelled off in recent months.

But the charity has warned that while we know those with non-traditional roles continue to face particular hardship as reported throughout the pandemic this year, it has been coupled with worrying examples of potential employment rights violations that make their financial and personal circumstances far worse.  

Four times more likely than the general working population to have faced losing their job, these workers are three times more likely to have been made to work while ill and/or to have not been paid wages they were owed.  

Despite assurance from government around sick pay and even attempts to change the culture of working while ill in light of the pandemic, Citizens Advice cites examples of agency and other workers denied sick pay after testing positive for Covid.

Citizens Advice warns many insecure workers are struggling to understand their rights or defend them due to a complex and “patchwork system” for employment enforcement.

Alex McColl is a frontline adviser at Citizens Advice in Sheffield. He says: “What really came across in this pandemic is just how precarious you are as an insecure worker. When tough times came around they were often the ones who lost their jobs, were denied access to the furlough scheme or saw wages withheld.

“I spent a whole day advising care workers on zero-hours contracts. One had lost their job because they’d refused to go into the home of someone with Covid symptoms. Another raised concerns over health and safety at their workplace and was subsequently given duties cleaning a Covid ward. They felt it was punishment for speaking up.”

Sharon has worked as a childcare assistant in a creche for more than nine years. She was employed on a zero-hours contract despite working a set pattern of 18 hours a week.

When lockdown hit, Sharon’s workplace was shut and she was furloughed. In September Sharon’s employer took her off furlough but did not give her any work.  

Her employer said that she was expected to be on standby. Sharon asked to receive redundancy pay instead and she was refused despite her local Citizens Advice establishing that she likely met the legal definition of an employee and would therefore be eligible.

Sharon says: “It has been a real struggle financially. My partner is having to make up the shortfall in our income and that’s put a strain on everything. We should be looking forward to Christmas but all I’m thinking about is paying the bills.

“It’s also been a struggle mentally. I try to stay positive as I’m sure there are people worse off than me, but it feels really hopeless given there are no jobs around. I thought being with my employer for a long time would give me some security, so it’s gutting to be in this situation.”

Across the labour market too, workers are feeling the effects of longer working days and unpaid overtime. The average worker is now performing nine or more hours of overtime every week compared with just three or more before the start of the pandemic, according to a separate study by law firm Wright Hassall. Half are receiving no pay for the extra work.  

Half of business professionals cite lockdown as the main reason for their extended working day, as 41 per cent say they are working extra hours to help support their company during an extremely challenging time.  

Remote working has also had a significant impact. More than a third struggle to log off on time, while 29 per cent say they feel under pressure to perform due to a lack of job security.  

Unpaid overtime is having a knock-on effect on workers’ mental health, the study found, with as many as 34 per cent saying they feel more anxious, 31 per cent feel more stressed and almost a quarter have trouble sleeping.

Fears are now growing that unpaid overtime will become the norm even after restrictions end.  

Tina Chander, head of employment law at Wright Hassall, comments: “Not only has lockdown had a significant impact on businesses who are struggling financially, but it has also had an impact on their employees, many of whom are working extended hours trying to keep businesses afloat.  

“It can be emotionally and physically draining to work extra hours for no additional pay, and even more concerning if you’re not receiving the right level of support from your employer when overtime starts to affect your mental health. It’s important to raise any concerns with HR or your supervisor, to ensure you don’t suffer in silence.”  

There are six national organisations which enforce workers’ rights, but workers who have been unfairly sacked or treated often can’t call for their situation to be investigated. While they could take their issue to an employment tribunal, previous research by Citizens Advice showed the employment tribunal backlog could pass 500,000 cases as a result of Covid.

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