When Boris Johnson announced at a press conference on December 8 that the UK would move to “Plan B” of Coronavirus restrictions, one could almost hear the collective despair of those running hospitality and retail businesses. Many saw the writing on the wall about what this would mean for Christmas trade, normally their best time of the year.
The Prime Minister’s warning, along with the rise of the Omicron variant, led the public to engage in “voluntary lockdown”, avoiding the places they would normally frequent (and spend a lot of money in) come December. The Government, having not technically ordered a lockdown, was under no obligation to provide financial support to businesses that suffered the consequences. Pub owners, among other employers, became a common feature in television interviews, often venting about the situation.
Perhaps less has been said, however, about a secondary casualty of the Government’s “Plan B” measures; that is, those on zero-hour contracts, and in other types of insecure employment, who have very little rights as businesses respond to declining custom. Employers can simply cut their shifts as they wait for things to improve. Meanwhile, those affected may find themselves suddenly financially insecure and/ or unable to plan for the future.
Whether zero-hour contracts are good or bad has been the subject of considerable debate over the years. Proponents argue that they give employer and employee better flexibility; opponents say that they are exploitative. It could be considered a “grey” political area in usual times.
But under pandemic conditions, it’s clear employees on such contracts are some of the most vulnerable when the Government starts closing down parts of the economy. In July, research from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) showed the extent of despondency among those on such contracts. Forty per cent of those in unstable roles (including casual or seasonal employment) said that their working conditions had become worse over the past year, compared with 27 per cent in secure roles.
Furthermore, 72 per cent of people surveyed on zero-hour contracts said that they had lost out on shifts during the pandemic. Some of the roles that were most affected were taxi drivers, shop assistants and security guards.
Zero-hour contractors do not represent a small segment of the population. Research from Statistica in 2021 shows that there are 917,000 people on these contracts, with a net increase of over 692,000 since 2000. It isn’t unreasonable to imagine these figures may grow substantially as a result of the pandemic. Employers, having endured years of precarious economic conditions, will be less likely to gamble on long-term employees.
Whatever the case, the combination of lockdowns, and de facto lockdowns, with zero-hour contracts, is not a successful one, and the Government should show more awareness of this – especially one that wants to “level up” the country. People can feel “left behind” when the working-from-home elite shows no consideration for industries that don’t have this advantage. It is yet another example of how the pandemic has affected members of the public differently. Too often our political class, and the media, forgets that every cry for more restrictions leaves a huge dent in someone else’s trade.
Given that it is January – when activity, particularly in hospitality, tends to be at a low point – one imagines that insecure employment may be even more of an issue than it was when Johnson spoke of Plan B. Add to this the cost of living crisis, and we are no way (economically) out of the woods yet. Either way, the Government must not lose sight of this part of the electorate. Ignoring this matter will merely ensure that those against zero-hour contracts have a better case.