Her first job in the UK had been fast-paced and stressful. So she left. She took up work in another food chain and began to study on the side. Work was great and she loved it, until the hours began to drop. Four months into the job she found herself with 10 hours a week and not enough money. Rachel, who asked for an alias in this piece, began to panic.
He took up work in retail, stacking shelves for two months. Four days a week he’d travel an hour for two hours of work. Two of his colleagues only received 4.5 hours a week. They all had no choice but to pick up unpredictable overtime. Soon Alex Wood, who’d taken up the work for research purposes, found his commitments to his partner and job teaching students under stress.
Rachel’s Zero-Hour Contract
The National Office for Statistics estimates that around six per cent of the UK workforce is on zero-hour contracts—contracts where an employer is not obliged to guarantee a minimum set of hours each week. Rachel is one of these 1.8 million people.
When you see the zero you can guess what it means.
Originally from Portugal, Rachel came to England and began to look for work in Cambridge at the end of 2010. It would be her first job. Her inexperience showed and despite sending out 40 CVs she received no responses. In need of help she turned to the local Job Centre for the Job Seekers Allowance and a list of businesses seeking workers.
“The places I chose contacted me very fast, maybe a week after I started using the Job Centre,” she said.
At the time the then eighteen-year-old didn’t know about zero-hour contracts.
“They [the employers] are the ones who put zero to forty hours on the contract,” she recalled.
“When you see the zero you can guess what it means.”
Was she wary of the zero?
“Yes and no. Yes, because you think oh, it could happen that they give me zero hours! I never want that to happen because I’m working because I need the money,” said Rachel, her eyes widening as she leaned forward in her seat.
“Then I thought to myself, well I work well so I don’t think they’ll need to put me on zero hours. This confidence in my work made me feel less afraid of that zero,” she slumped back as she finished.
Her next few years of experiences would reinforce her private theory that quality work kept her safe.
I had colleagues who would find themselves without work week after week, she told me. These were people who were working to support themselves so they needed the hours, and yet they were getting long holidays.
“You could tell when an employee was not a favourite.”
Still, despite striving to provide her best at all times, even Rachel would feel the bite of dwindling hours.
With a full-time job secured, she set her sights on higher education. After tackling a foundation degree it was on to a Bachelor of Science in Animal Behaviour and Welfare. As her education’s demands grew Rachel’s work environment began to fray her nerves.
“I worked there for nearly two years. It was too much. It was very stressful and I just, I wanted something a bit quieter. I don’t know… I wanted something different.”
I couldn’t, can’t, afford not to be working.
She found a job in another popular food chain and resigned from her first job. The new job was exactly what she was looking for—bustling but not stressfully so, physically demanding but not over-taxing—and she dove into the work with gusto.
“I worked there for four months,” she deadpanned.
“Four months?” I parroted in my surprise.
“Only four months,” she confirmed.
“Four months, because towards the end they weren’t giving me enough hours—enough to live.”
She looked me straight in the eyes and added, “I always said to myself, I need to have at least 20 hours to pay my rent and food with my own money. And when I had less I started panicking.”
Rachel had a rule. She’d always be employed. If she left a job, she’d have another one lined up already.
“I couldn’t, can’t, afford not to be working,” she continued.
Frustrated with her current job she returned to her first employer and asked for her job back. With years of previous experience and a good relationship with the management it wasn’t hard.
“I was very lucky that my employers were very understanding and nice,” she smiled.
Relieved to still be employed, Rachel settled in once again. She had returned to the environment she’d hoped to escape and she had to stay there for two and a half years before finding another job.
It’s not an ideal situation, but you have to adapt.
Now 22-years-old, at the end of her degree and happily instated in a comfortable job at another restaurant, Rachel maintains a balanced opinion of the experience.
“Sometimes it’s not their fault [the employers], sometimes they don’t have the customers to serve,” she said.
“It’s not an ideal situation, but you have to adapt. Maybe sometimes you start off not in the best way, but you will progress and you will move on to a better job or a job that offers you the conditions you want.”
She pointed out that she’s about to embark on a trip as a volunteer research assistant merely for the work experience.
“I’ll be working for free soon. I don’t really know how it’s going to go, if I’m going to be working every day, but I’m still going for it.”
Rachel’s hoping for a nine to five job in the future though. A job, she explains, where she could have a balanced life and do more than work.
Maybe one day she’ll open a restaurant.
“And after experiencing everything and knowing how the contracts work, how employers treat employees—I’ll wonder to myself, is it fair to put my employees on a zero-hour contract?”
Alex’s Minimum Hour Contract
In the last year big media sites have circled around the Conservative government’s decision to outlaw exclusive zero-hour contracts, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s proposals to ‘end the epidemic of zero-hour contracts’ and most recently Iain Duncan Smith’s suggestion to rebrand zero-hour contracts as flexible-hour contracts.
However, the massive numbers that are continuously quoted in this national debate may not represent the full picture.
Two researchers at the University of Cambridge are arguing that zero-hour contracts are only the baseline of the discussion and not the only perpetrators of the real problem.
“The definition of zero-hours contracts is too narrowly focused. The key issue is not that they offer no hours, but that they offer no security of hours,” wrote Dr Brendan Burchell and Alex Wood in an article for Open Democracy.
“The crux of the problem is that these contracts are a form of employer-controlled flexible scheduling and a large body of research demonstrates that this plays havoc with employees’ well-being, health and work/life balance.“
When you factor in other employer-controlled flexible schedules like minimum hour contracts, such as Alex’s, the number of people experiencing this lack of security skyrockets to around seven million in the UK.
One of my team mates told me that he’d been asked to stay and work overtime as he was putting his coat on to leave after his shift.
“The people in these situations are always very anxious, very paranoid and very concerned about whether they will have enough hours in the upcoming week. They experience immense relief when they do, but they re-live this emotional rollercoaster every week,” said Dr Burchell, head of sociology at the university.
“A lot of employers don’t realize the misery they are causing because they haven’t experienced it. It’s not considered a big part of human resource management.”
In order to further understand the situation Alex took on a job stacking shelves in retail for two months in 2013.
“I was interested in the effects of the insecurity caused by fear of job loss amongst workers in retail, but when I started talking to retail workers I realised that for a lot of them, the insecurity they were experiencing was around working-time and was a consequence of their employers’ use of flexible scheduling,” said Alex.
“I was employed for 8.5 hours a week over four days, so I was working on average 2 hours a day, but spending an hour traveling to work and back. The rest of my dozen or so team mates were also only hired for a small number of hours.”
Due to the lack of hours he and his coworkers were expected to work overtime and at the same rate as the standard contracted hours. Usually the overtime was offered on short notice, described Alex. Sometimes it was demanded the day before, the same day or even at the end of a shift.
It was extremely frustrating.
“One of my team mates told me that he’d been asked to stay and work overtime as he was putting his coat on to leave after his shift,” said Alex.
“The only flexibility for us was that we could refuse this overtime, but when you’re only working eight hours a week—so only earning about £60 a week—you don’t have much choice, as you need the money. You also don’t feel like you have a choice—managers expect you to agree to work the extra hours and can be quite insistent in their manner.”
The then 27-year-old even found himself discussing overtime with his manager while taking his partner to the hospital.
“My manager rang me and asked me to come in to work even though I was not scheduled to be in for another five hours. This put me under additional strain while trying to care for my partner.“
Alex was lucky enough to have another source of income from his work as a researcher and through teaching, but for some of his coworkers the job was all they had, and acquiring overtime was a constant worry.
“One of team mates, Rio, had been unemployed for a year before he got the job but still told the manager who hired him that he couldn’t survive on eight hours a week, so he should only take him on if he could provide more hours,” he recalled.
As for Alex, balancing the two jobs and his life outside of work was proving difficult.
“The unpredictability of my minimum hours job made it very difficult to meet the commitments of my teaching job. It was extremely frustrating not being able to plan my other work and having other deadlines, commitments and my social life disrupted at short notice.”
Even with a second job Alex found the lack of hours each day disheartening. The little money he was earning was being eaten up by the expense of his commutes.
“I’d have to cycle to the station and spend a third of the £14 I’d earned on the train, leaving me with only £10.”
Now, about a year and a half after he happily left the job, Alex told me what he learned.
On the one hand: “I learned how having to rely upon the kindness of your manager to give you extra hours or rearrange your shifts is a powerful source of motivation. When a manager helps you with your hours it’s hard not to reciprocate by helping them through working harder, even when the job is extremely boring and poorly paid.”
On the other: “From talking to other workers experiencing this kind of schedule insecurity I learned how much suffering is caused by not knowing what your hours will be one week to the next. The fear that you won’t be able to pay your bills, the anxiety that you won’t be available to pick your child up from school and the despair that you can’t plan to spend time with your loved ones or friends.”
“Work, even if you are not given much, dominates your entire schedule.”