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Agency Workers and Zero Hours Contracts

Authors: Dr Daiga Kamerade from University of Salford, Dr Malcolm Ball from North Derbyshire Unite Community Branch, Professor Helen Richardson from Sheffield Hallam University and Colin Hampton from Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centre

Agency staff working on temporary or zero hours contracts face a culture of having shifts taken away as ‘punishments’ according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Salford and Sheffield Hallam spoke to dozens of agency workers, along with staff from the agencies themselves as well as unions and job centres to research the growing employment trend. Some of the agency workers, who were mainly from Chesterfield in Derbyshire and whose names had been changed to protect their anonymity, described how they were subjected to a ‘punishment regime’ in which shifts could be arbitrarily withdrawn if they opposed management.

A former care worker said: 

"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 agency worker, who had worked 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. I needed 45-50 hours to live properly on the wage."

Another worker told researchers he felt he had been singled out for refusing a last minute offer of a night shift:

"I got a phone call at 11 o’clock at night as I was getting into bed. They offered me a single night shift, unloading pallets, and called it a ‘work placement’. I turned it down and have had no contact with the agency since. Basically you can’t refuse a job."

Researchers also found many workers had no written contract, or had one that was available online but difficult to access, while some were not even sure whether they worked for an agency, an employer or were classed as self-employed. Other workers described how they had experienced mental health problems, were unable to see their children and were sometimes away from home for three days at a time due to their zero hours contracts.

Dr Kamerade said: 

"Agency and zero hours contracts are not the norm, but they are a growing feature of working life in the UK, with nearly seven per cent of all the new jobs created between 2010 and 2016 being temporary agency placements. 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. These draconian employment practices create a climate of punishment and fear which has no place in 21st century Britain and it is clear that more must be done to educate workers about their rights and to lobby government for more protection."

Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, said:

"The report lays bare the impact that all too common employment practices are having on the lives of workers. A balance must be found that encourages employment without the appalling consequences revealed here on low paid British workers. We need to continue to pressure all employers to reach the standards of the many great employers who are out there, and get away from the race to the bottom mentality."

Read and download the free pdf in your browser here.


The publisher is the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres.

Agency Workers and Zero Hours Contracts - The story of hidden exploitation © Daiga Kamerade, Malcolm Ball, Helen Richardson & Colin Hampton 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

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