ZERO-HOURS contracts are just one aspect of precarious work, which has become increasingly normalised across major industries such as social care, hospitality and education in Scotland. Workers in these sectors also deal with short notice of shifts, fixed-term contracts and high staff turnover which limits the capacity for long-term progress on project-based work.
Dominating precarious work are women, migrant workers and young people — all of whom already disproportionately suffer from low pay and in-work poverty.
The report Poverty in Scotland 2023 showed that the top five lowest-paid workforces in Scotland include a majority of female workers, with unstable hours being a main factor in this. Among these industries were social care and hospitality.
It is on this basis that the Morning Star Women’s Readers and Supporters Group (RSG) organised a women-only webinar on February 6, titled Women in Austerity: Women in Precarious Work. This brought together women trade unionists from across some of the most precarious industries: social care, hospitality and further education, who each gave a presentation on the ways in which precarious work affects women in their sector. This was followed by further discussion.
From social care, 21-year-old Unison steward Robyn Martin raised how 80 per cent of care workers are women, and many have caring responsibilities in their personal lives as well as in their work.
The link between caring responsibilities and persistent poverty sets these workers at a substantial disadvantage already. One in five care workers are on zero-hours contracts and the care sector, the eighth-largest sector in the Scottish economy, is also one of the most at risk for in-work poverty.
Martin highlighted the increasingly dominant role of private-sector involvement in the delivery of social care as the root cause of persistent low-pay and insecure contracts among care workers, with public-sector carers earning an average of £1.60 per hour more than private-sector carers.
In Scotland, the Fair Work commitments agreed between the STUC and the Scottish government have opened the potential for care workers to address the casualisation and impoverishment they have been subjected to as we push towards sectoral bargaining, Martin argued.
Emma Donnelly, equalities officer for Glasgow Unite Hospitality, spoke of the similar impact that precarious employment has on women in her sector too.
Like social care, the hospitality sector also suffers from a transient workforce that can be challenging to organise and which enables bad employers to gradually erode terms and conditions.
Donnelly spoke of the short-term appeal that zero-hours contracts hold for women with caring responsibilities as well as young and student workers, whose availability to work can fluctuate much like many of the women working in the care sector, but balanced that against the long-term consequences that this instability produces.
The Get Me Home Safely campaign that Unite organised highlights a specific risk factor involved with precarious work, in that workers are often expected to make their own arrangements for travelling to and from work at unsafe hours without additional support from their employer.
This is a particularly poignant issue for women workers who are more likely to experience harassment. Donnelly argued that for addressing sector-wide issues such as this, the employer-by-employer organising approach is less effective and that Unite were able to win commitments from local government in Glasgow on this basis.
The final presentation at the women’s webinar was by Frances Curran from EIS-FELA, who has been involved in organising extensive industrial action over the casualisation of college lecturer contracts.
She addressed the role of privatisation in this casualisation, linking this to the similar relationship between privatisation and casualisation in social care.
Curran explained how hours were being offered to college lecturers based on business needs, which resulted in 12-week contracts and unstable working hours.
EIS-FELA responded with industrial action and a campaign which won permanency: a contract guaranteed on the average of hours worked after two years of service.
The combined experiences of all three speakers highlighted some critical characteristics of feminised workforces, which define the super-exploitation of women working in these sectors.
Human-to-human connection, which is so central to the delivery of social care, hospitality and education, is constantly under threat by the continuous worsening of workers’ conditions that see them working unstable hours of intense emotional as well as often physical labour, coupled with poor work-life balance and the mental health impacts of that, laid on a foundation of financial insecurity.
Similarly, human-to-human connection forms the basis of the solution to these crises of working conditions, as women workers increasingly organise and campaign together for advances in pay and terms and conditions.
Furthermore, the capacity of the Morning Star as a collective of trade unionists has, on this occasion and many others, brought together activists from key industries to exchange ideas about strategy and foster solidarity across different parts of the economy.
The Scottish Morning Star Women’s RSG will be running further webinars across the year, addressing the various impacts of austerity on women — from maternity to retirement.