Photo: Angela Hampton Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Our low-wage workers deserve a better deal

Going undercover taught me about just how anxious working Britain often is. But it doesn’t have to be this way
September 28, 2021

It is five years since I set out to investigate Britain’s low-wage economy by working undercover. In early 2016, as I set off on my travels around the country, the media was awash with positive economic news. There were a “record number” of people in work and Britain was said to be on the road to recovery after a long recession. 

This was welcome news. Yet behind the headlines something else was going on. Wages had failed to keep pace with inflation, and even more than that, work for many had become precarious. Innovations such as zero-hours contracts, which had grown precipitously in the years following the 2008 financial crash, left many without regular hours and gave a distorted picture of how many were truly in work. Zero-hours contracts might have removed people from the unemployment roll, but they did not always provide a stable and secure means of earning a living.

It is depressing, half a decade later, to see that many of the problems I encountered have still not been fixed. In fact, some have got worse. There are more people on zero-hours contracts today than there were in 2016, despite a slight fall in 2020. Public spending on top-ups to low pay (increasingly routed through Universal Credit) is now massively more than that paid to support the unemployed. Despite some flickers of life just before the pandemic and now again on our way out, the big picture across the jobs market remains: well over a decade of stagnant pay.

The upshot is that most people living in poverty in Britain now reside in a household where at least one adult is in paid work. The relationship between putting a shift in and earning a wage you can rely on appears to have weakened further.

The growth of the so-called gig economy has exacerbated the trend towards precarity and insecurity. When I explored this new realm as an Uber driver in 2016, words such as “flexibility” and “autonomy” were bandied around by gig employers in opposition to things like job security. Drivers were re-classified as “self-employed contractors” and as such lacked the right to a minimum wage and annual leave. Give workers such entitlements, so the argument went, and they would lose the autonomy and flexibility they cherished.

But such freedoms were often illusory, as we learned from the recent Supreme Court ruling against Uber. The work of the drivers was, its judgment concluded, “very tightly defined and controlled by Uber.” So much for flexibility and autonomy! 

Too often, instead of being used to describe sensible give and take between staff and managers, “flexibility” remains synonymous with the unreliable practice of bad employers (or gig employers pretending not to be employers at all). By contrast, genuine flexibility would be a win-win for both workers and employers—as the best employers well understand. 

“The growth of the so-called gig economy has exacerbated the trend towards precarity and insecurity”

The pandemic reordered working life, and the lasting consequences of that could create yet another great divide. According to the TUC, a mere 6 per cent of employers say they will not now offer flexible working opportunities to those who worked from home during the crisis. By contrast, fully one in six (16 per cent) of employers signal they will not offer flexible work to staff who were unable to work. Seeing as affluent individuals in larger dwellings typically have an easier time working from home, there is thus every risk that—absent policy action—access to flexible working will grow more unequal as normality returns.

When Covid-19 first arrived on Britain’s shores, we stood on our doorsteps and “clapped for carers,” a show of gratitude for what they were doing to keep us safe. And yet, as Madeleine Bunting reports, care workers are often denied fair treatment in their everyday working lives. 

I worked for a domiciliary care firm in Blackpool for a short time while researching my book. Of all the jobs I did, this was the most taxing. Unlike at Amazon, where I was tasked with picking orders in a warehouse, as a carer I was responsible for other human beings, many of whom had complex care needs. And yet, as a fellow care worker put it to me, it often felt as if we were treated like “glorified cleaners” by the company.

Without belittling the crucial work that actual cleaners do (hygiene is yet another thing whose importance the pandemic has reminded us of anew) it was obvious what she meant. The carers that I worked with put in long, exhausting shifts. On paper they were paid the minimum wage. Yet once you factored in the money spent on petrol to visit service users—money that was never reimbursed by the company—they took home even less. Unreliable shifts added another layer of insecurity to an already precarious existence. And of course, the stresses and strains placed on care workers had a knock-on effect on the people they were charged with looking after. 

In collaboration with individuals with direct experience of working poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has devised a set of recommendations to “make jobs work.” Even more than low pay, they focus on the importance of jobs “where people are treated with dignity and respect,” and which “deliver the security and stability people need to plan family life and finances”. 

These are the foundations of a good society. The onus is now on the government to make it a reality. It has shown an admirable willingness to reform the way social care is funded after years of neglect. It should now show similar resolve when it comes to tackling workplace injustices through an early Employment Bill. If its admirable promise to “building back better” is to be honoured, it must include a better deal for Britain’s workers, many of whom played an indispensable role in steering the country through this deadly pandemic. They deserve more than just a round of applause.  

Supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation