Employers in the service sector are ‘subverting’ workplace flexibility, causing financial insecurity, anxiety and stress among their workers, a study by Cambridge University academics has claimed.
The Department of Sociology report has been submitted to government as part of the consultation into zero hours contracts. However, it claims the consultation should be widened to review other damaging employment practices and says employees should be given the right to make statutory claims to work additional core hours and have a say in scheduling.
Dr Brendan Burchell, head of the department, co-authored the report with PhD student Alex Wood. He said: “Zero hour contracts are the tip of the iceberg; just one small manifestation of this much wider problem in our workplaces.”
“Workplace flexibility is thought of as helping employees, but it has become completely subverted across much of the service sector to suit the employer – and huge numbers of workers are suffering as a consequence.”
He added that flexi-contracts with a small number of hours do not provide enough to live on and give bosses too much power to dictate hours; power that is open to abuse.
The research was based on interviews with US and UK supermarket workers and shop-floor observation. It identified strategies such as ‘extreme part-time contracts’; key-time contracts and labour matching, which are causing stress and hardship for workers. Extreme part-time contracts offer so few hours that employees must work overtime, while labour matching means shifts are rearranged to suit demand.
In key-time contracts, workers must state times they can work outside their core hours and can be given just 24 hours’ notice that they will be needed. The report authors said the UK supermarket asks its new stores to aim for 45% of staff to be on ‘key-time’.
As well as financial and emotional stress, the researchers said the hours reduce access to education and training programmes and mean those with caring responsibilities cannot plan effectively. They said government needs to differentiate between those on high and low incomes working zero hour contracts.
“It is the invidious way that vulnerable people at the low end of the labour market are forced to live their lives that requires scrutiny,” said Wood, adding that “flexible working practices that favour corporations” are creating “a culture of servitude”.
Burchell said some employers use the contracts out of genuine need – such as weather-dependent salad production. However, he said others do so because it is convenient for management.
“Much of the misery caused is probably through incompetent scheduling, and management not realising the way they are controlling workers’ lives. If employees have a right to request more predictable hours enshrined in legislation that the management would have to justify refusing, it would at least help redress the balance slightly.”
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