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Just Managing?

 | 
Mark O'Brien
, 
Paul Kyprianou

Part II: The big issues

4. Working Life

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The ‘dignity of work’

1Wages and other sources of family income are of course matters of survival. However, things that affect the experience of work are also important. Where work is satisfying, purposeful and rewarding the effect on the health, well-being and happiness of the person can be positive; even profoundly so. Where it is none of these things it can impact negatively upon the person in all of these respects and more. For the lowest paid and the unskilled, work has seldom ever been anything other than necessary; ‘the job’ being a means of providing a livelihood and supporting dependents; ‘the workplace’ rarely a site of personal satisfaction or outlet. However, whilst avoiding a romantic view of working life, it is reasonable to expect minimum standards that should exist regardless of occupation or social status. Work should at least be safe; it should not be compromising to a person’s health; there ought to be dignity in work; there should be some predictability of hours and duties; a balance should prevail between contractual obligations and family life; there should be some form of employee representation; and so on.

  • 1 ‘Casualisation’ refers to the shift from permanent contracts to a pattern of nonstandard, fixed-te (...)

2However, it is just these aspects of working life in which we see a year-on-year erosion of standards and employer obligations, and deteriorations in the quality of working life for the low paid in the UK. Work it seems in many sectors has become more stressful over recent years. Many workers find that they need to add to their basic hours to bring in an adequate family income. Work for the lowest paid is increasingly casualised,1 with contractual permanence far more difficult to achieve than in the relatively recent past. Low paid work is increasingly associated with poor health. The trends for workplaces in the least well-paid sectors are of more arbitrary treatment of employees, higher incidences of bullying and, for a growing number, below minimum standards for basic entitlements and protections.

3The problem of stress in the workplace has come under scrutiny in recent years. The Health and Safety Executive identify six common causes of stress at work: difficulties in managing the demands of the job; inability to control work pressures; poor working relationships; workplace change; problems of role definition; and inadequate support.

  • 2 Shildrick, T., MacDonald, R., Webster, C. and Garthwaite, K. (2011), Poverty and Insecurity. Life (...)
  • 3 Blaug, R. Kenyon, A. and Lekhi, R. (2007), Stress at Work: A Report Prepared for The Work Foundati (...)

4Those in low paid jobs are also at greater risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace. Often these are trivialised or ignored by the employer so that the individuals affected feel unable to take time off to recover for fear of losing their employment.2 A further cause of illness can be the culture of the workplace more generally in relation to management attitudes to stress when it is reported. Gender also plays a role, women being more likely to experience stress in the workplace than men. The combination of these factors creates ‘vicious cycles’ in which stress becomes increasingly severe for the individual, affecting them at many psychological and physical levels of health, wellbeing and occupational function.3

  • 4 TUC (2015), ‘Someone Experiences Work-related Stress Every Two Minutes’. Press release, 16 October (...)

5A 2015 Trade Union Congress (TUC) study explained that the mental symptoms of stress included disrupted sleep patterns, listlessness and, at the extreme, suicide. The physical consequences it identified included loss of appetite, nausea, heart damage and stroke. Highlighting the extent of the problem it revealed that work-related stress, accounting for 39 percent of all work-related illness, causes 11.3 million lost workdays in the UK. It reported also that between 2013 and 2014 around 244,000 new cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety were diagnosed; equating to one diagnosis every two minutes.4

6These figures do not tell the whole story, however. Problems of work-related illness are exacerbated by the insecurity which characterises working life for increasing numbers of people. Since 2008, the proportion of workers on standard permanent contracts in the UK workforce has been falling, following a decade in which it had remained relatively constant. In those sectors which have seen rising employment numbers, new jobs have tended to be those with part-time, temporary and self-employed status.

7In 2014, 69 percent of organisations (and 78 percent of large employers) were using fixed-term contracts, whilst 36 percent (and 40 percent of large employers) employed workers on casual contracts.5 According to the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey, the numbers of workers in temporary and casual employment has increased year-on-year since 2008. In 2014, 1.7 million workers reported being in temporary work; a rise of 300,000 over six years. Over the same years the number of workers on zero-hour contracts had risen to 1.4 million,6 effectively doubling within that period.7 Its March 2017 report revealed more than a threefold increase in the number of employees on zero-hour contracts over the preceding five years.8 This meant that approaching three percent of the active workforce were on a zero-hour contract, with a far higher percentage of those on low pay. Women and younger workers were also more likely to be in this category. Another type of casualisation that has become far more familiar in the UK, is that of self-employed status for workers within an organisation who would otherwise have been employed with all of the entitlements associated with standard contracts. So, between the years 2010 and 2013, of the casual or ‘atypical jobs’ that accounted for 40 percent of new jobs in the UK, around half were zero-hour contracts; by the following year however, the great majority of new jobs were ‘self-employed’ positions.9 By December 2016, the number of self-employed workers had risen to 4.8 million; 15.1 percent of the workforce.

  • 10 HRZONE, Acas, CIPD (2015), p. 19.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 21.

8For most employers using the whole range of forms of casual employment the rationale, predictably, is that of filling temporary needs according to market fluctuations and changes in demand.10 These types of job are characterised by: lack of recognition awards; lack of cover for sickness, maternity and retirement; an absence of training opportunities; exclusion from internal communications; and a lack of clear line management arrangements.11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 23.

9With the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, even the basic statutory workplace rights that exist are less likely than in the past to be enforced. Since the introduction of fees for employment tribunals for instance, applications to court have fallen by 79 percent.12 One aspect of this erosion of worker entitlements is that whilst the employer is within their rights to allocate hours solely based upon their needs (the definition of ‘zero-hours’ status), the employee cannot do so without risking their position entirely.

  • 13 Ibid., p. 24.

10Neither is the impact of casual employment status restricted to the workplace. Home-ownership for instance is often unattainable for those who are in atypical work. Effectively blocked from buying a property by the refusal of banks to offer them mortgages, they and their families will very likely be renting their homes in the private sector. Restricted in their choice of home location, often they will be forced to live at a considerable distance from their workplace that makes expensive travel journeys to and from work necessary. It is unsurprising then that the insecurities and life-pressures for workers in these kinds of jobs lead directly to anxiety, stress and ‘depressed mental states’.13

  • 14 TUC (2015), ‘1.7 Million People Missing Out on Their Paid Holidays’. Press release, 30 July. https: (...)
  • 15 Paton, N. (2015), ‘Presenteeism Costs Twice As Much As Sickness Absence’, Personnel Today, 27 Nove (...)

11Problems of insecurity and the erosion of basic protections affect many other aspects of working life. One such aspect is that of the right and ability to take time off work. In a 2015 report the TUC estimated that each year 1.7 million people, or 6.4 percent of the workforce, are unable to take up their holiday entitlement.14 This was even though at the time of the interviews paid holidays were a statutory entitlement under the 1998 EU Working Time Directive. Added to this are circumstances in which workers do not feel secure enough in their positions to be able to take time off when they are unwell, preferring to come into work for fear of losing their job; a phenomenon known as ‘presenteeism’. In 2015, a survey by Personnel Today revealed that 31 percent of the 600 employers that responded said that ‘presenteeism’ had increased over the previous twelve months with most also admitting to doing nothing to discourage it.15

12Another aspect of workplace culture that affects people in insecure employment is bullying. The TUC reported in that in 2015 six out of ten workers had experienced bullying in their workplaces; with over a third of those workers having been bullied themselves. Furthermore, the problem of bullying affects some groups more than others. Women for instance are more likely than men to suffer bullying behaviour towards them, as are older workers. Although the perpetrators of bullying can be colleagues, they are far more likely to be managers. The effects upon the individual can be very negative for both mental and physical health. Job security and income can also suffer, as workers affected are more likely to take time off work because of having been bullied.16

  • 17 TUC (2015), ‘15 Percent Increase in People Working More Than 48 Hours a Week Risks a Return to “Bur (...)

13Low pay leads to ‘over-working’ for many employees, as they take on more and more hours to make ends meet. Indeed, the number of individuals working for more than 48 hours per week has increased by fifteen percent since 2010. The TUC’s 2015 report revealed that 3,417,000 workers were now in that position; an increase of 453,000 in just five years,17 the greater part of this increase being women working excessive hours. Working life for these workers, in what the TUC dubbed ‘Burnout Britain’ increases the chances of heart disease, stress, mental illness, strokes and diabetes as well as impacting negatively upon family life. Here the weakness of the European Working Time Directive was all too clear. The Directive stipulates a maximum of 48 hours working time per week. Over the years leading up to 2010, its effect in the UK was indeed to reduce the problem of excessive hours. However, the Directive also allows for individual ‘op-out’. Increasing numbers of employers then made this a condition of employment leaving many workers with little choice but accept this condition if they were to obtain work at all.

  • 18 TUC (2015), ‘Number of Commuters Spending More Than Two Hours Travelling to and from Work up by 72 (...)

14The problem of excessively long working days and weeks is also compounded by increases in the travel time to work that, as we have seen, often result from restricted housing choice as house-prices and rents have risen. In just ten years the number of people travelling for more than two hours to and from work has increased by 72 percent.18 The number having to travel for three hours or more has increased by 75 percent to 880,000 over the same period. Within this figure, the trend has been steeper for women workers than for men. The figures are also the worst in services compared to all other sectors.

  • 19 TUC (2015), ‘A Hard Day’ s Night: The Effect of Night Shift Work on Work/Life Balance’, p. 1, http (...)
  • 20 Ibid., p. 2.

15Between 2007 and 2014, the numbers of employees who do mostly shift work rose by 5.2 percent; those who do regular night shifts rose by 6.9 percent. Although traditionally far more men than women did shift-work and night-work, patterns are changing rapidly. Over these same years for instance the increase in the proportion of women night workers has risen by twelve percent, compared to four percent for men. In the social and health sectors, most night workers are women. Black and ethnic minority workers are also more likely to work nights than their white counterparts.19 The effects of night-work particularly can be very negative upon the person’s health and upon family life. Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, breast cancer, stomach ulcers, depression, physical injury are all associated with working nights.20 Reliance upon shift and night work can also be a cause of significant difficulties for child-care arrangements and costs, as well as being very disruptive of family relations.

16Despite exhortations to the least well-off in society from successive governments since the 1980s regarding the virtues of work, the truth is that working life for the low paid has not become any easier; it has become harder―much harder. Nearly half of workers for instance, say their job makes them feel worried some, most or all of the time.21 Annually, around 1.2 million workers suffer some type of illness they attribute directly to their employment; 700,000 who no longer work, are unwell because of their previous employment. The most common types of work-related illness are musculoskeletal disorders, stress and depression, accounting for 70 percent of absences from work due to ill health.22 It seems clear; the combination of the trends and factors described here, means that over recent years the workplace and working life more generally, has become more tiring, stressful and unhealthy for many millions of working people.

Family voices

The importance of work

17The employment experience of the families wasn’t just about being low paid, it was frequently defined by poor working conditions and exploitative employment practices. For all this, the families were adamant about the importance of having jobs to provide role models for their children and because it was engrained into them by their own parents. The importance of setting an example for the children was emphasised by Janet.

It’s important for me to have a job because I want my kids to follow in my footsteps, and I don’t want them to [think] ‘It probably would be easier for me to go on benefits’ or stuff like that. But no, I want to work. I want my kids to work as well. The amount of money I get paid and the amount of money I pay out! It’s still not an excuse not to work; but I understand why people choose not to.
Janet

18Eileen made a similar point.

The main reason why it’s majorly important for me is because I need my kids to see me getting up and working for a living every morning. I’m leading by example. I think it’s important that they know that you get nothing unless you get out of bed and earn it.
Eileen

19Will and Sam had two children. Will worked full-time in the leisure sector. Despite this, their average weekly expenditure in 2014 exceeded their income by £59.52, and they were paying back debts of over £1,600. They were getting help from Sam’s father and had also made use of payday loans. However, Will explained that he emphasised the importance of working to his children, just as his father did with him.

I mean, I’ve always worked. It’s always been instilled in me that you work; even with my disability, you work. It’s a pride thing as well. It makes you feel better if you work. I would never―unless my disability got so bad that I couldn’t―I would never not work. My Dad had his own business for 47 years, so he says ‘I don’ t care what you do, you work’, and that’s what I want to instil into my kids. I think it will be very difficult in the future; but I will instil it into them.
Will

20Phil took the same view and also saw employment as making a contribution to society.

I do think it’s important; it’s a ‘self-thing’. You need to work. And I like to think ‘I’ m working’; and then later on in life I can think ‘I’ve put my fair share into the pot’type of thing and I’m expecting a fair share back. I don’t have a pension at the moment. We’ve both worked. I’ve worked in various other jobs, from the age of sixteen. The only time I’ve been unemployed was for about four years; and then I managed to get back into work.
Phil

21Even though Ruth wasn’t much better-off in work, she nonetheless recognised its value in her own life.

It is very important to me that I have a job at the moment, basically for my children, to be a role model to them. I don’t want them sitting on the dole, you know what I mean. Yeah, set a better example. It’s good for myself, for my wellbeing; getting out. Yeah, basically at the moment the way my wages and everything goes, I am only about £15 better-off working.
Ruth

22For Amy, working was about having a sense of purpose.

To be fair, I’ve always worked. I left school at sixteen; worked for the summer in a factory and then went back to sixth form; and then left school and went to the factory. And even in between the kids I’ve always had part-time work and stuff. If I didn’t work I’d be absolutely devastated. I’d have to do something. But I always said ‘If I came into money I’d still do voluntary work’, because you need a reason to get up in the morning.
Amy

23Carol was a lone parent with five children. The family were living in privately rented property. She was working part-time, but valued her employment because it reduced the social isolation she would otherwise have experienced.

Oh, yes, I feel better in myself; and I feel better than like when I didn’t have any money. Before I was just stuck in the house with no money. Now, I’ve still got no money but I can go out and talk to my friends; you know my work colleagues. They always cheer me up.
Carol

24Ali and Rabia had five children. Ali had been working full-time as a support worker, but had been made redundant. He was now working in a fast-food outlet and getting paid at about the minimum wage. He worked shifts and had to be on-call during night hours but wanted more hours because he wasn’t earning enough. Normally he was only getting three days a week. Rabia stressed the importance of work even though she thought they weren’t any better-off financially.

It’s important because it gets depressing if you’re both out of work. If you think about it, there’s no future for the kids either. So it’s like, it gives him a bit of confidence, thinking that he’s always working. Occasions when we were both not working, it was hard. In terms of our abilities, we were thinking how can we both not have a job? Other people put you down when you’re not working. I want to go back to work.
Rabia

25Terri also knew that her partner Don would become depressed if he wasn’t in work. They had two children and were living in privately rented accommodation. Terri had been forced to give up her job due to ill health. Don was working part-time and had experienced poor mental health.

He would get depressed if he was in the house. I know he would because he has worked since he was sixteen. Since I have been with him, which is sixteen years. He started work in [a local company] and then he started working for [a different company] that do the docks and the trains, and he loved it; and they laid him off.
Terri

26Sian’s mother hadn’t been able to support her financially once she’d turned sixteen, and so she got herself a job. Like others, she made the point that she had always worked, often having more than one job.

I’ve always worked, and when I look at it I’ve had 23 jobs! I’ve never been sacked from them though; it was like natural progression really. Sometimes, I’ve had three jobs at once, like at a call-centre and an off-licence and a club of an evening. So I was single and I could work hard, always. I’ve always had a second job, like in a pub. I’ve worked for the minimum wage for most of my life and I think it’s just atrocious. People work hard on the minimum wage, and the price of everything’s gone up and everyone’s struggling. Everyone’s in the same boat.
Sian

27Denise had also always worked since leaving school, mainly in shops and bars. She was a lone parent with three children and was living in social housing. She said that being employed gave her a sense of self-sufficiency; of ‘doing something’ with herself. But of course, it was also a necessity and meant that she wasn’t dependent upon her family for support.

It gets you down, days that, you know, I’m working for nothing. Nothing [is] left, you know, but it’s life. But I don’t let it get me down; just got to get on with it. To be honest, it’s a case of ‘you have to’, isn’t it? Nowhere to turn to; can’t keep turning to family members all the time for money. I have to pay them back, you see; so it’s hard.
Denise

28Apart from the financial necessity of working, Carol saw a moral aspect to being in work.

I don’t know, I suppose it’s a moral thing isn’t it? It’s a ‘how you’ve been brought up’ kind of thing, really. We’ve both been brought up in working families, so that’s what you do. I wouldn’t cope any other way, anyway. Somebody’s got to work, that’s all there is to it. To us it’s important that at least one of us is working.
Carol

The impact of insecure work

29Low paid jobs are also frequently characterised by poor contractual status, without fixed hours and with low levels of entitlement. They also often offer little protection from arbitrary lay-off or dismissal. In these circumstances employees find it difficult to become established in their working lives or even to press for the rights they do lawfully have. Job insecurity was the reason Colette hadn’t done anything about joining a union or a pension scheme.

I keep saying ‘I am going to join the union and the pension scheme’. But I keep holding back until they make me permanent, because I don’t want to start paying into something and then they say ‘No, you’re not staying on’.
Colette

30Ric’s job was also insecure and was a cause of stress for his family. His partner Carol made the point that as a care worker the hours weren’t guaranteed

Everything is constantly hanging on a thread; there is no permanency to it. Although it’s a ‘permanent’ position, it could be swept away at any moment and again funding is being cut and cut and cut. There are other people, this has happened to them: their services have been cut and they’ve been left without. You’re paid for the hours you work, and then you’re basically relying on them. You haven’t got the redundancy money. You’re just left in a situation where you’re picking up shifts that can’t be filled, or somebody goes off sick or whatever it is, that’s all you’ve got for the time being. It’s no better than a zero-hours contract at the end of the day is it?
Carol

31Changes in her firm’s management and cost cutting exercises were sources of real concern for Joy.

It is permanent; I’ve been there twelve years. My new boss, to be honest, seems to go through staff a lot more quickly. We all worked for the same company for years and she seems to be different. She’s more cost-effective; so she’s trying to employ trainees and apprentices who are on £2.30 an hour. We do often, myself and two of the old girls, think that we are at risk really on account of the wage bill. So it is always a worry. We try not to think about it really. There were times when there have been things getting said in work about the wage bill and she needs to get rid of the highest waged people. It’s one of them really. I know she couldn’t just get rid of us, but we’re always thinking she could do things, like obviously change my hours so I couldn’t work them. It is always a worry, but I try not to worry about it.
Joy

32Liz was doubtful about keeping her job because of redundancies and closures.

They’re closing branches down constantly at the minute. There’s people getting offered redundancies left right and centre. We think it’s going to close. They’re only allowing two of us to go off at a time now because they’ve got no staff.
Liz

33The charity that Luke was working for was having serious financial problems due to cuts in funding. Things were looking very uncertain for his job in the medium-term.

We have been told by the trustees that this organisation is only able to survive for another 18–24 months. So unless we can get a big opportunity or big funding comes in, the charity may be shut down. The money that we’ve been getting from government has been getting less and less. I can’t guarantee after two years.
Luke

34Amy was a lone parent with four children. She had two jobs that together amounted to full-time employment, and pay above the national minimum rate. Even so, she was in serious financial difficulty and almost a third of her income was going to pay back debts of nearly £9,000. She was anxious about one of her jobs with a Community and Voluntary Sector Organisation.

To be honest with you, up until a couple of months ago it wasn’t ‘month-by-month’, it was ‘six-month-by-six-month’. They’d say ‘The funding runs out in July’; but then, it’s from all different places. So the funding that was paying our wages would run out in July; then it would be the second week in July. Then they would say ‘We’ve secured some more funding so you’re OK up until December’. Then we’d go back, and they’d say they’ve got more funding until March.
Amy

Pensions

35Contributing into a pension scheme is unsustainable for families in working poverty who are already struggling to meet their immediate financial commitments. Carol and Ric were among many in that situation:

Again, that’s a concern. It’s hard isn’t it, because I know you’ve got to put something away for your future. But we’re living hand-to-mouth, day by day. We have to start making some provision. It’s like all those things we’re really, really crap at. We’ve got no savings or anything like that; we’ve got no insurance, no life insurance, nothing like that because, as I say it’s that hand-to-mouth, living day-to-day. We can’t plan for the future.
Carol

36Eileen was a single parent with three children. She had two jobs and so effectively was working full-time. Her combined hourly rate worked out at about £7.75 an hour. She was still paying back a loan she’d obtained from what she called a ‘legalised loan shark’ three years previously, to pay the deposit on her rented property. Her debt was over £3,000. She was aware of the introduction of a workplace pension scheme, but hadn’t been able to afford to begin paying into it.

I’ve heard that it’s coming in and it’s starting soon. But I haven’t got a pension and I’m 48 years of age. No life insurance; no insurance on anything at all, and no pension. But apparently they’ve got to have them by law. I want to work for as long as I can and it worries me that the day will come when I can’t. My biggest concern is ever being a burden on my kids.
Eileen

37Chang and Jiao were a couple with two young children. Chang was working long hours in a Chinese restaurant being paid about £200 a week. Jiao was paid £6.31 an hour working part-time and didn’t get paid for breaks or lunch. The family’s expenditure exceeded their combined wage income and Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit by £5.34 a week. Jiao had worked in the same supermarket for about five years. On returning to work after having a baby, she found her pay had been reduced. Chang recognised that he and Jiao should have pensions but these circumstances meant they hadn’t been able to do anything about it.

At the moment, there isn’t much thought on how to deal with this problem. At the end of the day, age is an issue. Even if you can work ten or twenty years more, you would get old, and your functions would deteriorate. Your hands and feet wouldn’t be as fast as other people. It is still a problem.
Chang

38Amy’s reaction on being asked about the future and retirement was fairly typical of many of the families’ reactions to the question.

You’re joking aren’t you? I don’t worry about it at the moment. Maybe it’s something I will be doing a few years’ time.
Amy

39For Emma, a self-employed cleaner on the minimum wage, retirement wasn’t an option.

I’ll keep working. I don’t pay into a pension, so retirement is out of the question. I have thought about it, but I think for me to get any type of pension now I’d have to pay a big amount, to benefit.
Emma

‘Don’ t get sick’

40Those on low pay, unable to afford any reduction in regular income, are under serious pressure to work during bouts of illness because of the absence of sick pay. Phil, who is on the National Minimum Wage, talked about this problem.

No, I can’t see no end to it at all. I really can’t see an end to it. It’s just the way of dealing with it. You’ve just got to try and carry on with what you’ve got. I know I can’t take sick days and things like that, because obviously they don’t pay sick days anymore. So you’ve got to come into work. Even if you wanted a little day off somewhere along the way, or to take a holiday, you can’t do that. Working here you do see the people with the money. But I’m not a jealous type of person. I’m given what I’m given. That’s how I’ve got to get by.
Phil

41Liam was in a similar situation and couldn’t afford to take time off sick as Grace, his partner, explained.

He’s a proud man, and it’s awful to see someone that works so hard get a pittance. No, if he’s off sick, he doesn’t get paid. To be honest, he’s never been off, touch wood. Oh, he worked with his foot broken for six weeks, and didn’t know it was broken. Then he couldn’t get his shoe on so went to Whiston [hospital] and they said it was broken. And when he had the operation on his back, he had an open wound. It wasn’t like he was in bed with a cold. They were the only times he was off. Whenever he feels sick, it’s always on his days off. But he’s that exhausted lately he comes home and he’s asleep on the couch; his hours are so long.
Grace

Maternity and paternity leave

42Pete was on a zero-hour contract and could only take the minimum time away from work for paternity leave. On top of that he had recently had to take unpaid leave to look after their sick child. Tammy, Malcolm’s partner explained the problem.

The baby’s due soon, so not long to go now. [Their son] hasn’t been well. Malcolm has been off this last week, so he won’t get paid either, because of the zero-hour contract. He only took it off because, with me being the way I am, he’s [their son] too much now. This last month has been really hard basically, and with him being sick. He’s dead clingy to Malcolm when he’s not well and Malcolm took the week off. They’ve rung up today to see why he hadn’t rung in, and he’s meant to have rung in every day; but why? You’re on a zero-hour contract, so why do you have to ring in every day to tell them when you’re going to be back? He leaves here at 6:30am and comes back at 7pm at night; a full day isn’t it? He’s taking a month off; he’s already told them that. He should get two week’s paternity leave because you’re entitled to that aren’t you; so realistically you should get paid for that. Then he’s got two weeks’holiday that he’s taking as well.
Tammy

43Micha couldn’t afford to take paternity leave because of the rate that he would have been paid at when he was away from work.

He’s not even going to go on paternity leave because when I looked it up online, it’s £130 a week. So he said, ‘Just forget about it, I’m not going to go on it’. Say if mine’s going to be £100 roughly paid every fortnight, which is worse, and if he’s going to go on it for £130, probably paid fortnightly as well because the jobcentre pay it. So that would be £230 a week for both of us. He makes more when he goes to work, and makes overtime as well. So he says, ‘I’ m not going to go on it’. He might just take a week off as a holiday rather than take paternity leave. It’s a joke, £130.
Karolina

44Jiao talked about how maternity leave was also a break in employment that affected pay progression negatively.

Because after giving birth to children, the period when I was off for my maternity leave was more than a year, so when I went back, it was to the minimum wage, which is the lowest wage that they can give you. When I worked there before, they had given me a pay rise. Because it is as if you’re starting fresh in the job.
Jiao

Work-life balance?

45The need to take overtime when it’s available, so working long and often anti-social hours, limits the time families have together. With both of them working, Phil and Dot had to manage their time to have at least one parent home with their daughter.

Sunday, we don’t see each other at all. She goes into work and as soon as she’s coming home, I have to leave. It tallies out with our daughter, so we don’t have to get people to mind her.
Phil

46Amber was on her own with three children, one of whom had a chronic health condition. The family were renting from a private landlord. Child-care costs and rent of £600 a month were a major drain on Amber’s budget. She had recently started full-time work, and was worried about the impact that her hours would have on the family. Full-time work, on top of the time the children spent with their father meant that she wasn’t seeing enough of her children. One of the children had been particularly upset.

She [one of her children] was like, ‘I hate your new job; we only get a weekend together’. They have access with their father and then they are back to me. Then they are gone again and it’s horrible for me. I am getting quite emotional talking about it. I miss them loads. That’s something that is going to impact massively on them; not having as much time with me anymore. But you know the price of living is going up and you just go to work as much as you can now to get enough.
Amber

47Recently Micha had done eighteen hours of overtime on top of his weekly full-time hours. Karolina’s comments written at the end of her spending diary captured both the financial pressures she and Micha were under, and the impact this was having on their family life.

For these 52 weeks that I had this diary there were a few changes: rent increase, Council Tax increase, our Child Tax Credit has gone down from £54 per week to £26 per week due to overtime that Micha was working last year which was necessary for our financial needs. Food has gone up; minimum wage has gone up from £6.31 to £6.50 an hour—which we are both getting—but that is a change that we can’t really feel. Micha still needs to work hard and long hours and days to bring in just enough money to live; but we can’t buy anything for the house or go on holiday for cash; it has to be on credit card. And we are having another baby very soon. It’s going to make it harder. Instead of spending some time as a family and having fun, we spend it at work to provide for the kids. It is very sad.

48Karolina

49Grace and Liam had four children and were living in social housing. Family time together was limited because Liam had to work long, irregular hours in his job in the catering industry. He was being paid just above the National Minimum Wage. Even with the hours Liam worked, the family was struggling financially. Each week their average expenditure exceeded their combined income from wages, tax credits and benefits by £31.64. They were trying to pay off debts of over £6,000.

Well, to be honest, it is a struggle. It’s a struggle, because [for example] the kids’shoes; they’re growing fast. You find the shoes just don’t last. The coats, the uniforms, everything, the food. I just find it’s a struggle. A loaf of bread’s a pound now […] and I’m thinking, ‘We work; my partner works his butt cheeks off; and we’re always struggling’.
Grace

50The flexibility that Fiona hoped she would gain by being self-employed, to give her more family time, wasn’t working out at all as she imagined.

I did a fourteen-hour day. I did this whole thing so I could spend time with the children. It’s just the way things fell. I went home and had a boring sandwich because couldn’t be bothered to make proper food. I guess that’s what I’ve got to do if I’m to pay myself money.
Fiona

51Brenda explained how her working routine was impacting upon her family and personal relationships.

Basically, when I’m in work the kids are at home. So then I have to rely on their Dad to take over; and if he’s not doing it now I’m just wondering if he’ll do it [at all]. So, that’s when my Mum comes into it. Sometimes, I kind of feel like I use her.
Brenda

Conclusion

  • 23 Small and medium-sized enterprises are defined within the EU as employing fewer than 250 staff and (...)

52The deregulation of the workplace environment and the growth of a permissive culture towards regulation avoidance with respect to hours, job security and health and safety has been entirely an employers’ agenda. It has been accompanied by a legitimising government and tabloid rhetoric of ‘cutting red-tape’ and easing bureaucratic burdens for employers; especially small to medium-size employers.23 This narrative has both reflected and supported an intensification of competitive pressures within specific employment sectors. In turn, that has resulted in significant deteriorations of employment conditions for those whose work situations were already amongst the worst in the UK economy. The growth in the numbers and overall proportions of workers who are on short-term, temporary or zero-hour contracts or in bogus ‘self-employment’ are indicative of this long-term degrading effect. The results for those workers and their families have been terrible on many different and interacting levels. There is one aspect of the experience of work for the low paid that is crucial to consider however, and that is stress: its causes; and its effects.

53On the subject of working life, all of the families spoke directly about work-related stress or described experiences or episodes that had clearly been stressful to them. These experiences of stress resulted from the erosion of employee protection that has already been described, though in a range of different manifestations. Uncertainty about work continuity was one major problem for many of these working families, and with all of its implications for housing security and difficulties of debt management and financial planning. A lack of control ‘on the job’ combined with arbitrary treatment at work was for some a source of significant mental strain. Long hours made necessary by low pay and insecure contracts, had a huge impact upon family life and personal happiness for some. Worries that resulted from having to juggle more than one job, working unsociable hours that undermined family life and the absence of pensions for the working members of these families were also unremitting facts-of-life for many.

54The effects of stress were all too predictable. Overwork was a frequently reported problem with all the attendant issues of sleep disruption, irritability, insufficient time spent with children etc., and all having very negative quality-of-life consequences. The harmful effects upon mental health that have been widely documented in medical and public health research, were familiar to many of the families who took part in the study. Negative consequences for physical health were also in evidence in the families’ testimonies. When this is put alongside the difficulties of taking time off work because of sickness, it is easy to see how vicious downward cycles begin and descend in the lives of working individuals, their partners and their children.

  • 24 ‘Scousers’ is an honorific of both affection and pride, referring to residents of the City of Live (...)

55Despite the health issues that are associated with poorly paid and insecure work, and that were very much in evidence here, a commitment to working was a consistent and often emphatically stated feature of the interviews. All who commented along these lines believed in the importance of work for being connected to the world, for feeling ‘a part of things’ and for providing an example to children. Contradicting utterly the media stereotype of the ‘feckless Scouser’,24 these families, despite every obstacle in their path, remained committed to staying in work if at all possible. Their reward however, was often exhaustion, constant fear of unemployment and problems at home.

Notes

1 ‘Casualisation’ refers to the shift from permanent contracts to a pattern of nonstandard, fixed-term and zero-hour contracts or uncontacted working.

2 Shildrick, T., MacDonald, R., Webster, C. and Garthwaite, K. (2011), Poverty and Insecurity. Life in Low-pay, No-pay Britain. Policy Press, p. 149.

3 Blaug, R. Kenyon, A. and Lekhi, R. (2007), Stress at Work: A Report Prepared for The Work Foundation’s Principal Partners. The Work Foundation, http://westminsterresearch.wmin.ac.uk/11456/

4 TUC (2015), ‘Someone Experiences Work-related Stress Every Two Minutes’. Press release, 16 October, https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/someone-experiences-work-related-stress-every-two-minutes-says-tuc

5 HRZONE, Acas, CIPD (2015), ‘Workplace Trends of 2015. What They Mean for You’, 14 January, p. 19, http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/t/e/Workplacetrends-of-20151.pdf

6 Ibid., p. 22.

7 Ibid., p. 16.

8 Office for National Statistics (2017), https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/mar2017

9 Brinkley, I. (2014), Zero-hour Contracts: Response to the BIS Consultation, The Work Foundation, March, p. 4, http://mbsportal.bl.uk/taster/subjareas/hrmemplyrelat/twf/164300zerohour14.pdf

10 HRZONE, Acas, CIPD (2015), p. 19.

11 Ibid., p. 21.

12 Ibid., p. 23.

13 Ibid., p. 24.

14 TUC (2015), ‘1.7 Million People Missing Out on Their Paid Holidays’. Press release, 30 July. https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/employment-rights/working-time-holidays/17-million-people-missing-out-their-paid

15 Paton, N. (2015), ‘Presenteeism Costs Twice As Much As Sickness Absence’, Personnel Today, 27 November, http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/presenteeismcosts-twice-much-sickness-absence/

16 TUC (2015), ‘Action Needed On Workplace Bullying’. Press release, 21 August, https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/health-and-safety/bullying/action

17 TUC (2015), ‘15 Percent Increase in People Working More Than 48 Hours a Week Risks a Return to “Burnout Britain”’. Press release, 9 September, https://www.tuc.org.uk/international-issues/europe/workplace-issues/worklife-balance/15-cent-increase-people-working-more

18 TUC (2015), ‘Number of Commuters Spending More Than Two Hours Travelling to and from Work up by 72 Percent in Last Decade’. Press release, 5 November, https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/work-life-balance/number-commuters-spending-more-two-hours-travelling-and-work-72

19 TUC (2015), ‘A Hard Day’ s Night: The Effect of Night Shift Work on Work/Life Balance’, p. 1, https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/AHardDaysNight.pdf

20 Ibid., p. 2.

21 TUC (2010), ‘In Sickness and in Health? Good Work―and How to Achieve It’, https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/extras/goodwork.pdf

22 TUC (2015), ‘Work and Well-being: A Trade Union Resource’, https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/work-and-well-being-trade-union-resource,p.5.

23 Small and medium-sized enterprises are defined within the EU as employing fewer than 250 staff and having an annual turn-over of less than €50 million.

24 ‘Scousers’ is an honorific of both affection and pride, referring to residents of the City of Liverpool and its region; ‘Scouse’ being the distinctive accent of the area.

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