19 September 2017
New research from the University of Salford and Sheffield Hallam has found that agency workers are being punished for such things as turning down shifts or opposing management.
The team behind the study spoke to agency workers, job centres, staff of the agencies themselves and unions to investigate employment trends among those working on temporary or zero-hour contracts.
Their results, published in their report Agency Workers and Zero Hours Contracts – The Story of Hidden Exploitation, showed that some workers were being “zeroed down” when they were unable to take shifts offered to them, and that others were getting priority treatment because they were friends with management.
A former care worker told the researchers: “One older worker – he was good and very flexible and they took advantage of him. He was asked to do more and more night shifts – he didn’t want to do so many.
“Then he was asked to work a morning shift – the day after working all night. They went on and on and he accepted once and then they asked again and again. He said ‘no, sorry’ – they took all his hours off him for three months.”
Another worker said he suspected he had been punished by an agency after he turned down a last-minute night shift offered to him at 11 O’clock at night, just as he was getting into bed. He never received another call from that agency, he explained.
Meanwhile, a worker for a fast food company said: “Even full-time permanent staff could be on only 15 hours if their face didn’t fit. You needed to be friends with the shift organisers – friends would get the best shifts. Out of spite, some full-time workers only got one or two shifts a week at times..”
Dr Daiga Kamerade from University of Salford, one of the study’s co-authors, said: “People sign up to work for these agencies because they cannot find permanent jobs or sometimes because they were coerced to do so by job centres. However, our research shows that they face an incredibly precarious situation in which shifts can be infrequent or can come to an end at any moment.
“More worryingly, many of these workers told us that shifts are simply given to people whose face fits and can be withdrawn from those seen as trouble makers.”
Dr Kamerade and her colleagues (Dr Malcolm Ball from North Derbyshire Unite Community Branch, Professor Helen Richardson from Sheffield Hallam University and Colin Hampton from Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre), also found that many workers had no written contract, had difficulty accessing their contract, or weren’t sure who their employer was or whether they were self-employed.
The Institute of Employment Rights argues that one of the causes of these problems among agency staff is because of the current employment status structure in UK labour law. Those classified as “workers” (including agency staff and people on zero-hour contracts) are eligible for fewer employment rights than “employees” (those hired on a guaranteed contract directly by the employer). This sets “workers” up for exploitation and positions them as cheap and disposable labour.
We recommend this structure is reformed to have just one universal employment status that covers all people in work, and who are not demonstrably self-employed, that provides the full suite of rights from day one.
We also propose the establishment of Defined Hours Contracts for variable hours workers, in which employers must guarantee a minimum number of hours per week or month and a percentage of hours that will be spent “on call” on a paid retainer. This, we propose would provide security for workers who might not otherwise know when they will next work or how much work they will receive.