The “plandemic” – which has seen pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and cultural attractions booked up months in advance as lockdown restrictions ease – shows that Britain is being forced to think ahead. But many are being denied this opportunity when it comes to work.
This is a challenge that pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic. Insecure and atypical employment – like zero-hours contracts and temporary work – grew in the decade following the financial crisis, meaning that 5.1 million workers experienced some form of insecurity in 2018 while also earning less than the real living wage.
The unpredictability baked into many of these jobs was a big deal: in 2017, two in five workers in sales and customer services occupations felt anxious about unexpected changes to their hours of work. Such experiences spawned the term “one-sided flexibility”, describing arrangements that were much more to the benefit of employers than employees.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this employment insecurity. Changing economic restrictions, shifting government support measures, sudden closures of schools and nurseries, and the need to self-isolate at the ping of an app have been challenging for all workers – but particularly for those in low-paid and insecure work. Restrictions have had the biggest impacts on low-earning sectors, and those who started out in insecure work were more than twice as likely to lose hours, be put on furlough, or fall out of work altogether during the crisis than those starting on secure contracts.
Labour market data is always running to keep up with the changing world of work, and there are gaps in our knowledge about what insecurity and unpredictability really look like. New research published today (15 April) by the Living Wage Foundation addresses one of those gaps, documenting for the first time the prevalence of last-minute notice of work schedules across the workforce.
We find that short notice of work schedules is widespread – close to two-fifths of all employees (including those with no variability in their work patterns) are given less than a week’s notice of their shifts or working hours, with 7 per cent given less than 24 hours’ notice. For low-earners, parents and members of diverse communities, short notice is even more common. This matters beyond social and cultural activities – last-minute work scheduling makes it harder to plan childcare and health appointments, can lead to higher costs, and causes stress and anxiety.
The experiences of the past year make clear that secure employment with predictable hours shouldn’t be a luxury that millions of workers miss out on, and there is strong public support for businesses providing stable, guaranteed hours. This is an issue that policymakers will be considering as the government turns its attention back to the Employment Bill that was first pledged in 2019. But it’s also something that employers themselves are stepping up to via the Living Wage Foundation’s new Living Hours accreditation standard.
Alongside payment of the real living wage, Living Hours requires employers to provide at least four weeks’ notice of shifts, with compensation for cancellation within this period, as well as a contract that accurately reflects hours worked and a minimum of 16 hours per week unless the worker requests otherwise. Today, the Scottish energy provider SSE has been announced as an accredited Living Hours employer, joining businesses such as Aviva and Standard Life Aberdeen in committing to security and predictability of working patterns for staff.
By becoming a Living Hours employer, and committing to decent work, businesses like SSE are helping to lead us out of this crisis. Our hope for the coming years is less planning for a haircut or a coffee with friends, and more planning for the low-paid workers who have been critically relied on to keep the economy going this past year.
Laura Gardiner is director of the Living Wage Foundation