A study has revealed that workers are being forced into low hour contracts that leave them ‘begging’ managers for additional hours in order to earn a living or accommodate childcare commitments.
These flexible contracts are having a negative impact on the home lives and mental health of an estimated 4.6 million people, and Cambridge and Oxford sociologists have described them as “toxic and endemic”.
Flexible hour contracts are when workers are given minimal guaranteed hours and can have last minute changes and reductions made to their agreed working hours. They are particularly common in supermarkets and care homes.
In order to gather information, Dr Alex Wood of Oxford University embedded himself as a supermarket worker. According to The Independent he experienced the “toxic” interactions between shop management and workers, witnessing employees “begging” their bosses for additional hours.
Often, people are employed under contracts that offer one, two or four hours a week, “under the assumption that they will get more hours”.
One might assume that this desperation for more work could lead to an extremely competitive working environment, with workers constantly trying to outdo each other in order to be ‘rewarded’ with the extra hours that allow them to afford basic necessities like food.
The study has shown that being given extra hours by managers leaves workers feeling “indebted” to their boss, and as a result they feel that they should work “extra hard”.
Dr Wood explained:
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.
With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that the research has revealed that managers are being given an “insidious” form of power that allows them to discipline workers outside formal disciplinary processes.
Dr Wood said:
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.
Lack of alternatives
It appears that people are forced into these low hour contracts that lead to ‘heightened economic instability’ because there are no other alternatives.
Faced with unemployment or very short hour contracts, workers have no choice but to accept what little they are offered. As a result they are forced to sacrifice commitments in their personal lives. Dr Wood went into further detail:
“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,”
It isn’t only people with children that are affected negatively:
“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.”
Women are hit particularly hard, with previous research showing them as vulnerable to flexible hours. Dr Carol Easton OBE, Young Women’s Trust’s chief executive, told The Independent:
“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.
Low hour contracts do not work
The results of this study have exposed what many have long insisted: Low hour contracts do not work.
Dr Wood concluded that:
“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.
Researchers have recommended that there must be more discussions over flexible hours, and that the quality of employment should be highlighted, rather than just decreasing levels of unemployment. Will the government listen, or will they continue to insist that this way works – despite the evidence showing that it does not?
“Employment is at an all time high” is one of Theresa May’s favourite soundbites, but what are the effects of this ‘high’? Misery, desperation and instability? Families that suffer, mental health deterioration and immense mental strain? This is not the way life should be.
The lack of alternatives that force people into these soul-destroying contracts are a direct result of the Tory government, who seem to strive to make higher education worthless but financially crippling, who continuously cut funding to apprenticeships and who have worked hand in hand with the mainstream media to demonise the poor.
Under the Tories, this oppression will continue. Chances and opportunities will continue to be blocked and people will continue to be forced into zero hour contracts that reflect post-modern day slavery. Perhaps the worst part is that we’re made to feel like we should be grateful for the opportunities. Do you want this kind of life for your children, or do you want more?
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