Young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work – Evidence Review

This evidence review presents findings on young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work. These work conditions included where young people had for example zero hours contracts, low wages, lack of progression opportunities, dissatisfaction with current employment, or varying hours.

Chapter 3: What are the experiences of young people in precarious working conditions?

This section of the review refers to RQ4: What are the experiences of young people in a range of potentially precarious or flexible working conditions? Evidence relating specifically to the experiences of young people in Scotland was limited and as a result many of the sources reviewed in this chapter relate to experiences of potentially precarious or flexible working conditions more generally.

UWS-Oxfam Partnership research explored the experiences of low-paid workers in Scotland in a 2016 report however; which set out to determine what those in low-paid employment (classed as those earning less than £20,000 per year) considered to be important in making work ‘decent’.

This research found that 16-24 year olds in low paid employment in Scotland were most likely to consider a decent hourly rate of pay, paid leave, no discrimination, job security and a supportive manager as the five most important characteristics of ‘decent work’. Flexible hours were less important to the group, ranked 12th out of 26 listed characteristics - just below regular working hours.

The report comments further on what is important to 16-24 year olds working in low-paid work in Scotland, noting that:

“The findings show that young workers aged 16-24 valued certain factors more highly than older workers: a job with no discrimination; a sense of purpose and meaning; socially worthwhile work; supportive colleagues; opportunities for progression; and flexible hours.”

“Interestingly, 16-24 year olds were significantly less likely to value training opportunities as important – indeed this was ranked last overall for that age group. This may be due to young workers being more likely to undertake non-workplace learning opportunities, transitioning in and out of employment and working in temporary jobs.”

“Younger workers are twice as likely to report discrimination and are less likely to be unionised than older workers. A greater probability of balancing work with study may explain young workers’ likelihood to value flexible hours while the fact that they have recently set out on their career will likely explain why they tend particularly to value opportunities for progression.” (UWS-Oxfam Partnership, 2016a, p.16)

To what extent the characteristics of ‘decent work’ are part of the employment experiences of 16-24 year olds in Scotland was not determined by UWS-Oxfam’s research however. Evidence reviewed suggests that many of the working conditions associated with potentially precarious employment (as identified in Chapter 1, see table 3.1) can impact negatively on people’s lives in a number of ways, including deterioration of health, relationships, financial constraints, low levels of job satisfaction and general dissatisfaction, and limited social life. Case studies of individual examples have been provided at section 3.7.

Both the Scottish Parliament’s report, Taking the High Road: Work, Wages and Wellbeing in the Scottish Labour Market (2016) and research published by the TUC, Living on the Edge (2016), explore these factors in detail and some findings from these reports, and others, are outlined below (please note: the TUC’s research covers three key employment sectors in England only: retail, logistics/delivery and higher education). 

3.1. Health

According to a number of organisations that contributed to the Scottish Parliament’s Taking the High Road research (2016), low quality contractual conditions such as insecure employment and low, often irregular, pay, can have as many negative health outcomes as unemployment. Evidence submissions included testimony suggesting workers in low quality employment are more likely to experience illnesses such as chronic stress, heart disease, obesity and mental illness, and are also more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours such as high levels of alcohol consumption.

In the TUC’s Living on the Edge report (2016) long working hours and performance targets were described as causing stress and anxiety for many workers in the logistics sector, whilst workers in higher education described the negative impact of insecurity on their well-being. Referring to the ‘scare of precarity’ respondents highlighted a constant cycle of insecurity and the search for the next contract, with this insecurity of hours and pay leading to stress and anxiety.

Links between precarious working and poor occupational health and safety outcomes were also reported by Quinlan and Bohle (2004), who developed a model to explain this relationship based on three factors considered to increase risk of injury or ill health for workers, and to be characteristics of precarious work:-

1) Economic/reward pressures (whereby employment and income security, and the resulting competition for work, mean workers may be more likely to accept potentially hazardous working conditions such as working when injured, working over-long hours or multiple job holding)

2) Disorganisation (where workforce instability results in failure of proper health and safety procedures being followed) and 

3) Regulatory failure (whereby employment arrangements mean workers are less aware – or unaware – of their health and safety entitlements, their compensation rights, or the duties of their employers in regards to health and safety).

Outsourced and home-based work (often features of gig economy or platform economy working) were highlighted as at risk for poor occupational health and safety outcomes by Quinlan and Bohle in a later review. Isolated working in a difficult to regulate environment contributed to this for home-based workers, as did a reported tendency for self-employed workers to work longer hours than other employees (Quinlan and Bohle, 2008).

Research exploring Quinlan and Bohle’s model in relation to temporary agency work notes that:

In most developed economies, agency workers are disproportionately employed in low skilled and often hazardous occupations and industries” (Underhill and Quinlan, 2011, p.2)

This research investigated the experiences of temporary agency staff who had had workplace injuries in Australia and reported a number of factors that could put these workers at risk:

“Poor training, coupled with inexperience, unfamiliarity, and mismatched placements increased the need for effective communications to enable agency workers to perform tasks safely during a placement. Yet fractured communication, manifested in communication breakdowns between the agency workers, the agency, and the host, appeared widespread. Most common was the inability of agency workers to get either party to respond to OHS concerns, both arguing that it was the other party’s responsibility” (Underhill and Quinlan, 2011, p.13)

3.2. Finances

The Living on the Edge report found that many workers reported struggling financially and expressed considerable anxiety about ‘making ends meet’ and supporting themselves and their families. Higher Education workers reported experiencing pay insecurity which resulted in them not being able to access or finance what one participant called the ‘normal’ things in life, examples of what this constitutes was not provided. Workers in the logistics sector (such as parcel delivery workers), stated that once they had covered all their costs, including supplying and servicing a vehicle, they were often working for below the minimum wage. All respondents also highlighted the frugal life-styles they adopt in order to survive financially (TUC, 2016).

A number of other reports make reference to people living day-to-day within financial constraints, including a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which concluded that while pay was not the be-all and end-all, for most low-paid workers it was the element of their jobs they liked the least, and the one they would most like to change to feel happier at work, impacting significantly on their lives and the ability to keep up with the cost of living (Hay, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015).

A number of reports also discuss the gradual increase in the proportion of adults who experience in-work poverty. The Scottish Government, in its report What do we know about In-Work Poverty? (2015), reported that employment no longer guarantees a route out of poverty. Over half (52%) of working age adults in poverty in Scotland were found to be in ‘in-work poverty’, i.e. experiencing poverty while living in households with at least one adult in employment. Low-pay, often a component of the types of working identified as at risk of precariousness in Chapter 1, is considered a key driver of in-work poverty.

3.3. Pressure to take work

The Scottish Parliament reported being concerned by anecdotal evidence that jobseekers may be forced to accept a job offering an unsuitable zero-hours contract rather than face benefits sanctions, e.g. being penalised with removal of benefits for not accepting a job offered to them (Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, Scottish Parliament, 2016).

TUC’s research also reported pressure faced by workers to accept working hours that may not be suitable. Those working in ‘casual’ employment within the retail sector were found to experience changes to shifts at very short notice to cover fluctuations in demand. Requirements to comply with short notice requests created challenges for workers with childcare or other caring responsibilities, as well as for those receiving benefits. Workers also felt that refusing to agree to shift changes could make them vulnerable and that they could be starved of hours in the future. One participant’s description of the lack of genuine choice for some workers is shown below:

“These zeros, I don’t think work for anybody. To me the flexi-contracts they’re exactly the same. You’re either on a contract, or you’re not. If you want to work six hours, that’s your choice. You may only want to work one day a week. That’s your choice. But if there’s no other choice and you need work, you’ll take it. But that’s not a living, is it? No. People, you know, take it in desperation. But the reality is, you might as well not work. You might as well be on benefits, if that’s what they’re giving you” (TUC, 2016)

Evidence reviewed also included reports of workers being concerned that hours may be withdrawn from them, discouraging them from taking time off for sickness or from taking holidays. Campaigners from Inverclyde Advice and Employment Rights Centre related instances of experienced agency workers being dismissed for not being able to do over-time for example, providing an example of how workers may not experience true flexibility and are instead under pressure to cede to employer demands (The Herald, 2018). 

3.4. Employment rights

The lack of a contract or written agreement, or even the lack of a payslip, are noted as potential contributing factors in making workers feel vulnerable. The TUC reports that workers expressed a sense of worthlessness because of the levels of insecurity that they experienced. This resulted in a sense of exploitation and that their vulnerability was being abused; however respondents felt they had no option but to carry on, feeling they did not have sufficient rights or protections to contest treatment from employers (TUC, 2016).

The need for protections for those whose work does not entitle them to all minimum statutory employment rights is discussed by Conaty et al. in a 2018 report, Working Together, Trade union and co-operative innovations for precarious workers. The report examines developments in worker representation in response to increasing numbers of people in employment considered potentially precarious, and identifies a number of positive innovations in the UK. These include business and employment cooperatives (providing support for freelance workers through an umbrella cooperative), platform cooperatives (mobile apps which facilitate access to trade union services) and innovative local authority regulation (such as the move by employment tribunals in London to award worker rights to Uber and CitySprint workers – these being: the National Minimum Wage, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity, paternity and adoption pay, and rest breaks; as well as protections against unauthorised deductions from pay, unlawful discrimination, and less favourable treatment due to working part time or whistleblowing). While it highlights these examples of positive practice the report describes this activity as taking place in the context of, and in response to, an ‘erosion’ of worker rights and protections, and calls for legislative change and increased trade union and cooperative action to combat this, commenting that: 

“With the erosion of the archetype of a five day week, full time for most, agreed hours job, goes the loss of a wide range of benefits in favour of precarious work with limited rights and imposed flexibility. Not all self-employment is of this form, but what tends to be characteristic of newer self-employed workers and those on zero hour contracts is low pay, limited legal protection, high insecurity, limited social security access, limited pension entitlement and limited collective representation” (Conaty et al., 2018 p.5).

Schiek and Gideon (2018) cite collective industrial action by Deliveroo and UberEATS drivers in 2016 as an example of how those working in the gig economy can use ‘collective bargaining’ to improve their working conditions stating that:

“Collective industrial action is far from structurally impossible for workers in the ‘gig-economy’, even though management of labour relies on anonymous and automated micro-management through internet platforms and apps” and noting later that “the use of information technology also offers the potential of a collaborative world of work and life where technology serves the enhancement of self-determination” (Schiek and Gideon, 2018, p.1 & 2)

However, as with Conaty et al.’s report cited above, industrial action by gig economy workers is deemed necessary because they are considered vulnerable due to a “structural imbalance of labour markets to the detriment of workers” (Schiek and Gideon, 2018, p.10), likened to that experienced by workers in industrial times, and the paper argues for an adaptation of EU competition law to protect collective labour rights in the gig economy.

3.5. Satisfaction with working conditions

The evidence reviewed makes a strong argument that many of those working in potentially precarious or flexible employment types (as outlined in Chapter 1) are dissatisfied with their working conditions or a number of aspects of their job.

However, more positively, CIPD research reported that 46% of gig economy workers were satisfied with their work over the last 12 months. This was due to the flexibility that came with the job (information was not provided broken down by age). In addition, very few differences were reported between gig economy workers and other workers when asked how they had felt whilst working during the previous 12 months (e.g. stressed, miserable etc). That said, gig economy workers were not satisfied with the amount of work available, with only one in four feeling they got enough work on a regular basis (CIPD, 2017).

3.6. Contributing factors

There is also a need to understand if any particular factors, such as sector of employment or demographic characteristics, contributed towards employment experiences. This was a subsequent question to RQ4 (see Table 2.1). 

There was limited evidence that clearly identified factors that contributed towards experiences. The main factor that was reported on was sector of employment. 

It was suggested by representatives of NHS Health Scotland, when contributing towards Scottish Parliament consultation, that certain sectors had higher proportions of what they considered ‘unhealthy’ jobs. These included elementary work (involving the performance of simple and routine tasks), sales, customer services, process, plant and machine operatives, leisure, caring and other service occupations (Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, 2016). 

Similar sectors were cited as having high levels of potentially precarious working positions by the TUC’s, Living on the Edge report, (2016): retail, hospitality, catering, logistics/parcel delivery and higher education. 

The TUC report examined if the likelihood of experiencing job satisfaction was related to worker characteristics such as age, gender and working hours. It used a logistics regression model and found that some correlations do exist. This was mainly in relation to the type of work undertaken and the hours worked rather than demographics however. 

Workers in lower-level occupations were less likely to experience satisfaction than those in the highest-level occupations. Workers in casual employment were less likely to experience job satisfaction than those in permanent jobs. In addition to this, the likelihood of experiencing job satisfaction was lower for those with no regular hours of work than those with regular hours. 

A difference in gender was also reported with women more likely than men to experience job satisfaction. No appreciable difference was found between those identifying as non-white and white or when age groups were compared.

A similar exercise was then carried out to show the extent to which workers experienced job-related depression and anxiety. It was reported that perceived low employment security and weekend working was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, and anxiety appears to be worse for workers who have no normal working times (TUC, 2016). 

3.7. Case studies

When reviewing evidence in relation to RQ4 there was limited published data on individuals’ own accounts; however there are a number of press articles and blogs which have shared individual experiences. It should be noted that these sources do not provide information on the prevalence of the working conditions described but instead provide a snapshot of the impact of these for some individuals in Scotland, ages unknown, whose experiences have been considered newsworthy. 

In October 2018 The Herald’s article Tales from the gig economy: Real people, real stories provided an account of life working in the gig economy for one delivery worker delivering across Scotland:

“When the bosses said jump, we had to say ‘how high?’.”

“We were afraid to say anything. The threat was that you could be dismissed at any moment and told your services were no longer required so we did what we were told – we all have mortgages and mouths to feed,”

“I was frightened of what was going to happen to myself and my health. I couldn’t carry on there because of the hours. I don’t like to admit it but I was honestly heading for a breakdown. I was bordering on tearful. I couldn’t even go to the doctor to get help as I’d get hit with a £150 fine.” (Neil Mackay,The Herald, 2018)

The Herald’s account cited above supports the suggested correlation between precarious working and poor health outcomes. This worker reports having missed medical appointments due to fearing a fine of £150 (having previously been charged by his employer after attending a specialist renal appointment related to his diabetes). The worker relates having collapsed twice at work and in the article his wife also describes him going to work despite vomiting blood. The account dramatically illustrates how employment in which inability to fulfil the hours expected by an employer has a significant financial implication, can impact on health.

In contrast an entry into the Royal College of Nursing’s Nursing Standard, provides an example of how flexibility can benefit workers, describing how zero hours contracts can be an advantage to people at certain times of their lives:

“I would like to comment on the long-running debate over zero-hours contracts. I had a zero-hours contract when my daughter was ill and I was unable to commit to regular hours. The contract meant I was able to work at short notice when possible. Work was not always there when I was available, but I valued the opportunity to work on an ad hoc basis. I was also able to work in a department where I received training and personal development. This was preferable to agency work.” (Zero-hours contracts can work for employers and employees, Nursing Standard, Volume 28, Issue 3, 2013)



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