The debate now raging in New Zealand over zero-hours contracts – in which an employer does not give its contractors any guarantee of hours, but, in many cases, forbids them from working for anyone else – is just the latest symptom of the rise of insecure work. Also known as precarious work, this is a form of employment where the variable and changing nature of the job suits the employer but not the worker.
In these kinds of jobs, workers often have little idea how long their employment is going to last or what hours of work they will be asked to do, and the pay is low. According to the Council of Trade Unions (CTU), this insecure work denies workers the stability they need for a good life and reduces their ability to control their own work situation.
Insecure work is not a phenomenon limited to New Zealand. The British labour economist Guy Standing has identified a global class of workers whom he calls ‘the precariat’, describing them – in his book of the same name – as “a potentially transformative ‘dangerous class'”. These are not people doing what might be termed ‘flexible work’ – those who genuinely choose to work variable hours or on contract, and who earn a reasonably high income, have transferable skills, and have a significant amount of control over pay rates and their hours of work.
Instead, insecure work is generally defined as affecting only those who face low or fluctuating pay rates. Insecure workers also face significant uncertainty over how long their job will last, as it can be terminated with little or no notice. They have limited control over their hours of work, assigned roles and work environment; no or limited access to benefits such as sick leave; and a lack of rights, such as protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal.
In New Zealand, this kind of employment was common throughout the 19th century, but protections (and pay rates) for workers increased significantly in the 20th century, especially after the Second World War. In the last 30 years, however, the number of people in insecure work has risen again sharply. In that time, globalisation has forced a greater worldwide division of labour and reduced wages and conditions in many countries, as employers in developed countries have argued that they need to cut costs to compete with emerging economies. Technology has also changed how and when work is performed, and consumers in the 21st century demand more flexible, ‘just-in-time’ services and products.
New Zealand is particularly affected by insecure work because its employment protection laws are relatively weak. According to the OECD, it has the developed world’s fourth lowest level of protective regulation for temporary contracts. Other protections for workers are also being weakened, as in the recent extension of trial periods to 90 days, during which time new workers can be dismissed without any reason given.
In New Zealand, at least 30% of the workforce – over 635,000 people – were in insecure work in 2012, according to ‘Under Pressure’, a 2013 report published by the CTU. This included those who were out of work; those in various forms of temporary employment including casual work, fixed-term, temp agency and seasonal work; and those in permanent work where there was a medium to high chance of job loss in the next year. Of these insecure workers, there were 95,000 who had “no usual working time” and 120,000 who had less than two weeks’ notice of their work schedule. If New Zealand had better labour statistics – something that is “desperately needed”, the CTU argues – it would probably be shown that insecure work affects over 40% of the workforce.
When it comes to particular sectors, insecure work has long been common in areas such as fast food and hospitality. In retail, more and more workers are on part-time arrangements, with additional hours allocated on a casual basis. And insecure work is spreading to areas where once it was relatively rare, including universities and government departments. In socio-economic terms, some groups are more frequently affected by insecure work than others – in particular, low-paid women workers, young people, Maori and Pacific workers, migrants and people with disabilities.
Insecure work is an increasing concern for policymakers because of its implications for workers, their families, workplaces and communities. For workers, one of the most obvious risks is to their health. The Commission on Social Determinants of Health, established by the World Health Organisation, found evidence that temporary workers have higher death rates, poorer mental health outcomes and worse physical health. These effects are particularly pronounced for people with irregular shift patterns.
As the review of health inequalities in England in 2010, chaired by Sir Michael Marmot, commented: “Work is good – and unemployment bad – for physical and mental health, but the quality of work matters. Getting people off benefits and into low paid, insecure and health-damaging work is not a desirable option.”
Insecure workers also have to face the reality that accepting a low quality job does not necessarily improve their chances of getting better quality employment. Long periods spent in insecure or temporary work can see their skills atrophy, while insecure workers are much less likely than permanent staff to receive training and have their skills improved. These factors, and the negative health effects of insecure work, can combine to trap people in a downward cycle of low-paid, poor-quality work.
People in insecure work generally have little control over their work hours, and are more likely to have irregular and uncertain shifts. This can have significant flow-on effects for their family life and social relations. People who work evenings and weekends, often on short notice, have far fewer chances to interact with friends and family, and it is difficult for them to plan attendance at recreational events, children’s school events and sports days, or religious functions. This can in turn place a strain on their relationships with friends and family. Ultimately, it is argued, the entire communities pay the price for insecure work, because people are less able to make a contribution in their area – through volunteering, taking part in community activities, or simply having the time to be good parents.
The first step in coming to grips with this complex issue is for New Zealand society as a whole to draw a line: between forms of insecure work that are unacceptable, because the damage they do to individuals and communities outweighs any economic benefits, and those that are acceptable, where the reverse is true. Once that distinction is made, policy responses can flow appropriately. For the unacceptable practices (zero-hours contracts could be one such), the response can be simply to prohibit them in law; for the acceptable parts of insecure work, there is a more complex task, which is to work out how the welfare state can be adapted to provide stability and support to those carrying out that kind of work, so that they do not suffer while the rest of the country reaps the benefits of a more flexible economy.