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       Hazards, number 163, 2023
Dave Smith’s guide to organising  |  No.22  |  Precarious contracts are a hazard
Employers know full well that their bonus schemes, casualised contracts and their own supervisors place pressure on workers to cut corners to hit tight deadlines. Dave Smith says union safety reps need to ensure these risks are part of the risk assessment – because casualisation kills.


Imagine overhearing a workplace conversation where a manager is telling two electricians to fix spotlights around the outside of a three-storey building. Everyone understands that working at heights is a serious hazard.

So, the first question that most safety reps would ask is: ‘Are they working off a scaffold or a ladder?’ But there is another question that may not be so obvious, but is crucial to understanding why construction has more than double the fatalities than any other sector of the economy.

How are the electricians being paid?

If they are directly employed by the company and their wages are based on the hours they work, they will happily wait two days for a mobile scaffold tower or a cherry picker to arrive before starting work. Not only is it safer, but they won’t be losing any money.

On the other hand, if they are contractors being paid £200 for every spotlight they install, waiting for the correct equipment may mean earning no money two days this week. If bills need to be paid, workers will often be pressurised into cutting corners on safety.

If the electricians end up working off a ladder and have an accident, it would be easy to criticise the workers for carrying out the work in an unsafe manner. But don’t blame the workers – blame the employer’s payment system. How a firm chooses to pay their labour has a major impact on workers’ behaviour.

Workers themselves often have very little say in how they are engaged by a firm. They are offered a job on a particular contract: take it or leave it. Increasingly this is on precarious contracts such as zero hours contracts, as banked staff, through umbrella companies, via employment agencies, or some other casualised basis.

Even the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recognises that the employment status of workers has a big impact on safety and publishes statistics comparing accident and fatality rates between employees and self-employed workers. In the five-year period 2018-23, a third (33 per cent) of fatal injuries to workers were to the self-employed, even though such workers only make up around 15 per cent of the workforce.

Many of the ‘self-employed’ are not genuinely self-employed at all. The bosses simply designate their staff as ‘self-employed’ to deliberately circumvent safety legislation, tax liabilities and basic employment rights. The jobs are simply not offered on any other basis.

But it is not only construction and bogus self-employed workers who are at greater risk. Employers’ productivity bonus schemes financially incentivise employees to cut corners on safety. Many delivery drivers have strict time slots for each delivery. If the delivery is late, the driver has a deduction from their wages. Although the firms would never admit it, this kind of bonus scheme forces workers to skip their breaks and exceed the speed limit while at work.

In large distribution depots for major supermarket chains, pickers collect the stock ready to go onto HGV lorries for delivery. Pickers contracts often include a ‘pick rate’ based on how many items are picked per hour. Failure to hit the pick rate can result in disciplinary action, while exceeding the pick rate results in an additional bonus payment.

The biggest causes of accidents in the depots are workers rushing around the depot or picking stacked stock from the bottom, which is quicker but results in goods becoming unstable and toppling over. Whenever there is an accident, the workers are blamed for cutting corners and not picking as trained – but the company bonus system encourages this behaviour.     

I once carried out joint union-company training for safety reps who represent night workers at a large logistics firm. Their job was to unload boxes of newspapers from HGV lorries and transfer them onto smaller vans for delivery to stores.

HARD PUSHED  More than six million workers are in insecure work, the majority also low paid.

One of the managers made a point of explaining that in most cases, the boxes were so heavy that two workers were needed to pick up the boxes of newspapers. Don’t rush or try to pick up too much weight, as this was likely to cause a bad back. All the safety reps in the training burst into laughter.

“Are you kidding? We have a team of chargehands who spend the entire night shouting at us to ‘hurry up’. If any of us ever asked someone else to help us move a box, we wouldn’t be around on the next shift”.

Despite their fine words, employers know full well that their bonus schemes, casualised contracts and their own supervisors place pressure on workers to cut corners to hit tight deadlines. How many employers even mention contract status or productivity bonuses as a potential hazard in their risk assessments?

If they don’t, then union safety reps need to talk about it – because casualisation kills.

One in five workers are in ‘insecure’ jobs

One in five workers are in insecure jobs such as those in which they face short notice about their shifts, new research has suggested.

More than 6 million UK workers are in insecure work, with 3.4 million who are in both low paid and insecure jobs, the Living Wage Foundation (LWF) found. Its report said that health and social care workers are worst affected, followed by those in wholesale and retail, accommodation and food services and education.

Many workers whose job involves variable hours or shiftwork, have been called into work with little notice, said the report. The majority (59 per cent) of all shiftworkers received less than a week’s notice of their working hours, with one in ten (13 per cent) being given less than 24 hours’ notice.

LWF director Katherine Chapman said that reliable working hours are as vital to workers’ financial resilience as a real living wage, adding: “The extent of low pay and insecure work in health and social work is particularly alarming. The sector holds some of the most important jobs to our society yet they are also the most precarious and poorly paid jobs in the British labour market.”

She urged employers and the government to commit to providing workers with “living hours” – secure, guaranteed hours and notice of shift patterns – alongside a real living wage.

Precarious pay and uncertain hours: Insecure work in the UK labour market, Living Wage Foundation, August 2023.


Insecure work is not equal opportunities

A new analysis published by the TUC has revealed the number of Black and ethnic minority (BME) workers in insecure work more than doubled from 2011 to 2022, from 360,200 to 836,300.

The chance of a BME worker being in an insecure job has also increased, with 1 in 6 in this position now compared to 1 in 8 in 2011.  The TUC says the “boom” in BME workers in insecure work accounts for the vast majority of the overall increase in insecure workers over the last decade. 

BME workers account for two-thirds of the growth of insecure workers in this period – despite BME workers making up just 14 per cent of the overall workforce.   

BME men are almost twice as likely as white men to be in insecure work (19.6 per cent of BME men in work compared to 11.7 per cent white men).  BME women are much more likely than white women to be in insecure work (15.7 per cent of BME women in work compared to 9.9 per cent white women).

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said “too many Black and ethnic minority workers are trapped in low-paid, insecure jobs with limited rights and protections, and treated like disposable labour.”

He added: “It’s time to end the scourge of insecure work once and for all – that's how we start to tackle the discrimination that holds BME workers back.  That means banning exploitative zero hours contracts. It means delivering fair pay agreements to lift pay and standards across whole industries. And it means placing a duty on employers to report their ethnicity pay gap and take action to close it.” 

The TUC says the UK is becoming a “nation of insecure jobs”, with precarious and low-paid work widespread in all regions and nations of the UK.  It said there are 3.9 million people in insecure employment – that’s 1 in 9 across the workforce.   

The industries with the highest proportion of insecure work are the elementary occupations, caring, and leisure services, and process, plant and machine operatives. 

Low-paid work is increasingly insecure work – in 2011, 1 in 8 low paid jobs were insecure, but by the end of 2022 it was 1 in 5.

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Employers know full well that their bonus schemes, casualised contracts and their own supervisors place pressure on workers to cut corners to hit tight deadlines. Dave Smith says union safety reps need to ensure these risks are part of the risk assessment – because casualisation kills.

  One in five workers are in ‘insecure’ jobs
Insecure work is not equal opportunities

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