Whose flexibility?

I went recently to the launch of a Resolution Foundation report on zero hours contracts (ZHCs).  My daughter was on one of these for quite a while.  I think of a ‘contract’ as something struck between two or more agents with some degree of reciprocal obligation towards each other, however minimal and formal.  ZHCs don’t look much like  that to me.  They vary, of course, but typically they involve the individual being at the organisation’s disposal, at almost any time, with no reciprocity.

The RF report, and other research by Jill Rubery focussing on domiciliary care workers, shows just how unbalanced the deal often is:  work which is very intermittent, so that the individual can be called on to make home visits which are spread over a very long working day but with only the actual time spent specifically in the homes being paid for.  Travel time and costs unremunerated, contact time with the client very tightly monitored, even the ’employing’ organisation’s badge to be sewn on by the individual.  Of course  the organisation is not acting as employer – that’s exactly the point.  So no employment rights, NI contributions, sick/holiday pay etc.

That’s a one-sided picture of ZHCs.  For some people such flexibility is welcome, or at least acceptable.  ‘If they don’t want it, they don’t have to do it’, and that’s certainly true in some, perhaps the majority of cases.   There can be a perfectly reasonable matching of the person’s wish for occasional work and an organisation’s need for occasional labour.  The college where I am a governor employs many of its tutors on pretty much this basis.  But I left the RF meeting feeling pessimistic about the quality of most ZHCs.

I assumed that most people on ZHCs are women.  This is certainly the case for domiciliary care.  To my – and their – surprise the RF researchers found that there was not much difference – only 53% of those on ZHCs are women.  However they acknowledge that the figures (drawn from the Labour Force  Survey) greatly underestimate the whole issue, with only about 220,000 people reporting themselves as working on ZHCs.   It is one area where the ‘more research is needed’ plea is amply justified.  In particular, it is important to know how long people stay on ZHCs.  My guess is that many more women than men will be on them for prolong periods;  men will use them as stepping stones to more stable employment.

Relatedly, another report from the DBIS Select Committee on Women in the Workplace, has a section on flexibility.  Once again there is a shortage of good quality data on what is actually happening with part-time and flexible working.   One thing  is clear:  more organisations say they favour flexible working than actually do.  Women Like Us, an organisation I’ve referred to before which pioneers giving high-skilled women access to jobs which adequately match their competences, present good arguments for the  beneficial effects of making fuller use of the skills available.  I buy these completely.  But we’re still lacking a broad base of strong empirical evidence on the business case.

There’s no obvious answer is on ZHCs.  Guy Standing, author of a book on the ‘precariat’, argued for a citizens income as the long-term solution, and for stronger minimum employment standards.  I’m for these;  but we’ll also need to show how services such as domiciliary care, so important in an ageing society, can only be effectively and humanely provided if those actually delivering them – mainly women – are decently treated.




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