Sarah, 44, married with a son aged four, has a degree in modern languages, two master’s degrees, a PGCE teaching qualification and a PhD. She has 20 years’ experience in teaching. Each year, for the past four and a half years, her contracts as a lecturer at two universities have been renewed only days before the start of the academic year, meaning she has continual breaks in employment.
She is entitled after four years to request a permanent contract that brings with it improved employment rights, security and a chance to improve her pension. Illegally, her requests have been ignored. Instead Sarah’s wages have stuck at about £23,000, £4,000 below the average UK salary at a time when the cost of living has risen by 25% since 2008. A starting salary for a lecturer is about £32,000.
“I love what I do. I do a good job,” she says. “I’d like to do a better job, but I can’t afford the time to research and publish. Five years from now I will still be teaching, but my wages will have gone down even further and my promotion chances are nil.
“Yes, I am angry, bitter and frustrated. It’s a different version of the glass ceiling. It impacts on the quality of education too, and I care about my students. If I am asked to come in at a moment’s notice to teach a course, I won’t turn it down, even if I’m not the best person for the post, because I need the money.”
The world of work is increasingly insecure for a growing number of women and men. Zero-hours contracts, agency work, hourly pay, variable hours and fixed-term contracts – all make up the new precarious environment. New analysis by the TUC shows that, since 2008, the number of women in casual work has risen by a far higher number than predicted. It has increased by more than a third (795,000 to 1,080,000) and by a staggering 61.8% for men (655,000 in 2008 to 1,060,000 in 2014).
While more men have been drawn into casual work, a new report, Women and Casualisation, Women’s Experiences of Job Insecurity, published on Monday at the start of the TUC’s Decent Jobs week, points out how the impact on women is greater. They earn on average £60 a week less than men, maternity rights are often undermined, 30,000 women are sacked during pregnancy and those in casual work are more vulnerable, while unpredictable hours for women have a far greater impact on childcare and caring responsibilities and on in-work benefits such as working tax credits. A woman has to work 16 hours a week to be eligible. If she drops below, she may be asked to repay the benefit.
Low-skilled, casual work that offers little in the way of guaranteed hours, training and job security is traditionally associated with sectors such as social care and retail. Many women have little choice but to trade “flexibility” for low pay and limited opportunities so they can meet children and carers’ responsibilities.
Employers argue that casual work can be a route into full-time work. However, recent research shows that 44% of people on zero-hours contracts have worked for the same employer for two years or more. One in four have been employed for five years.
Women and Casualisation also highlights the growth in involuntary casual work among the highly qualified. Women, who have been pouring into universities and the professions since the 1970s, may now find themselves in employment that makes use of their education and qualifications at a cut-price rate that comes at a personal cost.
Kate, for instance, has two children and was employed in radio production on a series of casual contracts, “living in a state of precariousness”, she says. “You have always got to be available, to be seen to be there all the time.”
Sally, 47, has been a qualified pilot for 15 years. She knows only a month ahead whether she will be in work. “A permanent contract would offer three months’ notice and a right to redundancy payment after two years’ continuous employment,” she says. “I have been working for my current employer for 27 months. I was led to believe I would have a permanent contract. Instead, now, I’ve had to sign on with yet another agency for more casual work.”
Isobel has been a props manager for a major theatre for 20 years and is a representative for the union Bectu. She says that many women in her industry, which includes costume design, lighting, sound, scenic art and technical theatre, are seeing the end of permanent contracts. “My company, for instance, says it wants to ‘aerate the system’.”
A group of half a dozen permanent staff all on grade one at around £17 an hour is to be replaced by a core of two permanent staff and lower rates of pay for the rest of the group on casual contracts, graded from two to five, each grade at a much reduced hourly rate. “It’s false economy,” Isobel says. “Women with years of experience are working fixed-term contracts that can be as little as one week. We are not asking for more. We are just trying to stop it getting any worse.”
The University and College Union has a longrunning anti-casualisation campaign. It says that two-thirds of further education colleges and half of UK universities employ staff on zero-hours contracts. That affects a person’s ability to acquire a mortgage, for instance, or to afford children.
Cecily Blyther, 56, a qualified teacher for many years, now works as a learning support officer in the south-west of England at a further education college, supporting students aged 16 to 60. She has been on a zero-hours contract for six years and, last year, earned less than £10,000. She has survived with help from her mother and by dividing her house into three, to take on tenants. “Every summer they say my services may be required for the next academic year. We have to turn up at the beginning of term and ask if there are any students. Initially, this term I began with only two hours’ work.”
Two years ago she asked, without success, for a permanent contract. After four years an employee can request a permanent post. The employer can cite “no objective justification” (not defined), such as a lack of business need, for not granting the request. Recently Blyther’s hourly rate was reduced by 25%. She earns £15 an hour, which covers preparation time and administration and includes holiday pay but no sick pay.
Jonathan White, who runs the anti-actualisation campaign at UCU, says: “None of the proposals put forward by the three main political parties to address zero hours are effective. Labour’s proposal, for instance – that an employer must offer a permanent contract after 12 months – will mean employees will find themselveslaid off after 11 months.” In November, Labour MP Ian Mearns introduced a private member’s bill proposing that casualised employees have similar rights and protections to those offered to regular workers and the banning of exclusivity clauses that prevent the underemployed from earning in a second job.
“Any economic recovery will be one for the few, not the many, so long as working people continue to be employed on Dickensian contracts,” Mearns said. He plans to reintroduce the bill next month.
Half of all universities, including Goldsmiths, University of London, do not offer precarious employment. So it can be done. “We know women are far more likely to find themselves on actualised contracts and stay on them for longer,” White says. “For some, that means delaying decisions about having a family. Universities and colleges are supposed to be places of enlightenment. They should be deeply ashamed.”
The TUC report offers a number of recommendations including a written statement of terms, conditions and expected hours of work and stronger support for collective bargaining. For this article, only one highly qualified woman felt she could risk having her name published. Casualisation is about flexibility, but it’s also about fear and loss of rights.
“All my employers have to say is that there are no more hours, and I am out of work,” Sarah says. “It’s too easy for them to let me go. We are cheap and dispensable. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a shop or in social care or in a university, what we do deserves to be properly valued.”
Cecily Blyther (pictured top), a support worker at a further education college in south-west England
“It’s a battle to get the work. We have to turn up at the beginning of term and ask, ‘Are there any students?’ Yet it’s a legal requirement for a college to provide learning support. The job is one-to-one. The college tried to get us to take on more than one but we refused because it wouldn’t work. I so love the job. But when I asked for a permanent contract after six years the head of human resources said that as long as zero-hours contracts were here, he’d make use of them.”
Sally, airline pilot, 15 years’ experience
“Employers now constantly keep you on the back foot. I am rostered in the middle of the month for the next month. But I could be laid off with a month’s notice. The lack of continuous employment makes it difficult because you can’t claim redundancy payment without two years of continuous employment. I’ve never belonged to a union before but this is the first time I’ve considered joining Balpa (the British Airline Pilots Association). You have got to stick together because no one knows what these temporary contracts really involve.”
Sarah, university lecturer, 20 years’ experience
“Two weeks ago, there was a fall in students in another area to mine. Permanent staff are protected so I was told I would have to go. Two colleagues argued my case and I survived. At the beginning of the term I was told I would have work for two semesters, 12 hours’ teaching each semester. Last week, I was told there are no hours in semester two. I teach more than any full-time lecturer yet I earn half what they do. Yes, I like flexibility but I’d like permanence of employment too.”
Isobel, theatre props manager, 20 years’ experience
“I am on a permanent contract but the theatre is now employing people on fixed-term contracts, which can mean anything beginning at one week. That makes it difficult, for instance, for women who need maternity leave. The hours are growing longer too, with no flexibility if women have childcare commitments. We had a very talented woman in lighting. She had twins. The employer could have organised part-time work but she was expected to work a 66-hour week on a short-term contract so she left. That’s a waste of experience and talent.”