Workers are begging their managers for additional hours in order to make a living as millions are forced into flexible working due to a lack of alternatives, a study has revealed.
Research by Cambridge and Oxford sociologists indicates that 4.6 million people are on flexible contracts, meaning they have minimal guaranteed hours that can be subject to last minute changes and reductions, often having a negative impact on their home lives and mental health.
The research revealed that precarious employment practices, most common among supermarket and care home workers, is leading to people begging for schedule changes to accommodate for commitments such as looking after their children or for more hours simply in order to earn a living.
Dr Alex Wood, of Oxford University, embedded himself as a shelf-stacker at a UK supermarket while formerly a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, where he experienced first-hand the “toxic” interactions between shop management and workers, witnessing employees “begging" their bosses for additional hours.
“People are put on contracts that are one or two or four hours a week, and it’s not possible for them to survive on this. But often they are hired under the assumption that they will get more hours than that,” he told The Independent.
“It creates this situation whereby in order to be able to survive, people have to constantly go up to their manager and ask them for more hours, saying they can’t make ends meet without more hours, asking: ‘Please can you help me.’
“Then if and when the manager helps the workers out, it means they feel very indebted to their manager to work hard.”
The study states that zero hours contracts are the “tip of the iceberg” of precarious employment practices, with analysis of data from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) – undertaken across Europe every five years by EU agency EuroFound – showing that precarious scheduling affects a further 3.9 million people in the UK.
Dr Wood said that the reason people end up on such contracts is often due to a “lack of alternatives”, with many left with the option of either unemployment or very short hour contracts because of an increasingly “24-hour, on-demand” economy.
“There’s a lack of alternatives. People don’t have any choice over which jobs they do. For many, it’s either unemployment or having a very short hour contracts,” he said.
“There have been some structural changes in terms of the nature of work, where it’s moved to a 24/7, on-demand economy where employers expect people to work whenever there’s demand for that work.
“Sometimes people will be putting on their coats to leave, and then they’ll be asked to do another shift. So people have no security over what hours they’re going to work.”
Subsequently, as well as heightened economic insecurity, workers are being forced to sacrifice commitments in their personal lives, Dr Wood said, with some parents routinely facing the choice of whether to provide financially for their children or caring for them.
“There’s a lot of insecurity over income, but also in terms of caring for loved ones. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to get home to look after your children or take them to and from school. People are having to make a choice between providing financially for their children or providing care needs for them,” he said.
“Even those who don’t have children; people talk about how they can’t play football or other sports because they can’t commit every week having Saturday free. They might be asked to work the day before.”
The study, carried out by Dr Wood alongside Cambridge collaborator Dr Brendan Burchell, found that 14.7 per cent of all surveyed UK workers routinely experienced manager-controlled alterations to their schedules – often at very short notice – equating to 4.6 million people experiencing some form of precarious scheduling.
Previous research indicates that women are particularly vulnerable to these forms of flexible work, with mothers often struggling to balance precarious shifts with childcare and subsequently suffering a decline in mental health.
In light of the latest findings, Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton OBE told The Independent: “The insecure work Dr Wood describes is increasingly typical of many young people’s experiences – and it is shutting women out of the workplace.
“Young Women’s Trust research shows that women are far more likely to be in insecure work, find it harder to make their cash last to the end of the month and are more likely to have poor mental health as a result.
“Budgeting, paying your bills and planning ahead can be impossible when you don’t know how many hours you will be working or how much money you will have coming in each month. For some, an inability to balance precarious shifts with childcare can make working impossible.
“Flexible working has to benefit the employee, not just the employer. Providing stable, secure jobs would not only help workers, but the economy and the mental health services that are currently struggling to meet demand.”
The study also found control exerted by managers through flexible contracts was creating an environment where workers must constantly strive to maintain managers’ favour, leading the researchers to warn that managers are given an “insidious” form of power that allows them to discipline workers outside the formal procedures.
“Even if their hours aren’t changing, people are often very scared that their hours will change, and that they then won’t have enough hours to survive. This gives managers a very insidious form of power. It means they can discipline workers without going through the more formal procedures,” said Dr Wood.
Dr Burchell echoed Dr Wood’s concerns, describing flexible contracts as “toxic and endemic” in certain areas of employment such as retail and the care sector, adding: “Manager-controlled flexible scheduling causes a huge amount of stress and anxiety for workers who are unable to plan their lives socially or financially as a result.”
The researchers urged that instead of focusing only on zero hour contracts, there must be more discussions over flexible hours, adding that there must be more emphasis on the quality of employment rather than just decreasing levels of unemployment.
“Instead of just focusing on zero hour contracts, we ask that there’s more focus on whether people’s hours are being changed regularly,” Dr Wood concluded.
“Often we focus on unemployment, and the narrative will be that the labour market is good because this number of people are currently unemployed or we have the lowest unemployment rate in five years, rather than looking at the quality of that employment.
“The economy isn’t necessarily working for those people if they’re still experiencing the insecurity and negative impact on people’s wellbeing that you’d have if you were unemployed.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The UK economy’s continued success is built on the flexibility of our labour market, benefitting both business and workers and leading to record levels of employment.
“But we do recognise concerns that the labour market is not working fairly for everyone which is why we asked Matthew Taylor to carry out an independent review into modern working practices to ensure our employment rules keep up to date to reflect new ways of working. We’re now talking to the business community and workers across the country to understand their views before publishing our response.”
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