Report highlights issues for women on casual contracts

Women on casual contracts need greater protection around pregnancy discrimination and to protect them according to a new report from the TUC.

Women on casual contracts, including zero hours contracts and short-term contracts, need greater protection against pregnancy discrimination and more support with childcare, according to a new report from the TUC.

Women and casualisation says that women have particular issues with casual contracts. Its interviews with women found that poor treatment of women in pregnancy was widespread. It says it was especially concerned about the use of casual contracts to undermine rights, including maternity pay, and the prevention of mothers returning to work. These issues tended to hit at a particularly vulnerable time, often towards the end of the pregnancy, says the report. 

Some of the interviewees also expressed concern about whether their very low hours and earnings would disqualify them from Statutory Maternity Pay. Several of the women interviewed found themselves having to either re-apply for their own jobs after returning from maternity leave or to accept a demotion and a pay cut.

Another issue for those who had no control over their hours was childcare. The interviews uncovered practical difficulties for all of the women in terms of not having a set pattern of work or having little control over their hours. The women interviewed were sometimes given very little notice of shifts. One interviewee reported being given “as little as half an hour” advance notice of a shift.

Most formal childcare was unable to accommodate changeable patterns of care as it would make it impossible to plan staffing levels and budget effectively, says the report. The women interviewed who were best manage the flexibility in their working patterns were those who can rely on informal childcare offered by their wider families or the support of friends and neighbours. Without this support many
reported they could not hold down their jobs. 

The variation in hours also had a significant impact on the amount of pay women took home each week. Many were frustrated by not being able to secure more hours or a regular work pattern. This often led to financial difficulties because of the interaction between fluctuating or variable pay and in-work benefits such as tax credits. There was a particular concern about their benefits being too high if they have worked extra shifts and their ability to pay back an overpayment. 

The report recommends written contracts setting out terms and conditions, better access to more permanent jobs since many on zero hours contracts work regular hours, a requirement for employers to provide notice of work and changes to shifts, a fair wage, equal rights with other employees and childcare support.

The TUC has also published another report, The Decent Jobs Deficit – The Human Cost of Zero Hours Working in the UK, which states that workers on zero-hours contracts are earning on average £300 a week less than permanent employees –  £188, compared to £479, with women earning on average £32 less than men.

The research also reveals that zero-hours workers are five times more likely not to qualify for statutory sick pay than permanent workers as a result of their lower level of take home pay. Two-fifths (39 per cent) of zero-hours workers earn less than £111 a week – the qualifying threshold for statutory sick pay [and statutory maternity pay] – compared to one in twelve (8 per cent) of permanent employees.

The report concludes that endemic poor treatment at work should not be tolerated. It says: "There is an urgent need to challenge precarious employment and to introduce a framework of policies designed to encourage the creation of decent jobs, offering decent hours and pay." It calls on politicians to adopt and implement policies which deliver:

– Improved rights for zero-hours contract workers and others on casual contracts, 
– All workers to benefit from the same employment rights
– Equal pay for agency workers
– Better enforcement of employment rights for low-paid, vulnerable workers.

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