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What is life really like on a zero-hours contract?

When MICHELLE DORRELL entered a zero-hours contract she found herself experiencing a black hole of uncertainty

MOST of us in the Labour Party and elsewhere know about zero-hours contracts. Yet, knowing about them and living with them are two entirely different things.

It’s only when you’re living with the consequences that you really understand what it’s like — not just the financial side of things but also the emotional and mental impact.

This August, I had to re-enter the world of PAYE employment after five years being self-employed, running my own little home-based salon. 

Unfortunately, with the current economic conditions hitting my clientele numbers hard and struggling to stay relevant next to more convenient high street salons, I made the ultimate decision to close the salon and get a job in order to better support my family financially.

Things have dramatically changed since the last time I was searching the jobs market. Back in 2011 very little was available, but now there seem to be plenty of jobs. However, of the jobs suitable for my skills and experience, nine out of 10 are zero-hours contracts.

Within days, I secured a position with a high street retail chain, applying with my CV directly after spotting a sign in a shop window.

My first shift was described as a “trial run” — three hours of work and a chance to show my capability.

It went well. I found the job easy to pick up and got stuck in. 
At the end of the shift, I approached the manager to see how things went and complete any paperwork for bank account and national insurance details.

I was surprised to be told we wouldn’t complete anything that day. We could sort paperwork at a future date. “I’ll call you,” is how the conversation was left.

Standing there, I just thought: “Well, what do I do now?” I’ve still not been officially offered a job or even another shift. 

“Am I going to have a job from this? Will I even be paid, if not?” I thought.

But I couldn’t just blurt this out because that certainly wouldn’t help me secure a position.

Walking home, I continued to mull those thoughts over and over, getting more anxious and feeling silly about what had just happened. 

I’d never been in such a situation before. Even when I was a 14-year-old pot washer, I was paid for any hours worked (cash in hand was common at that age though). 

By the time I got home, I was close to full-scale meltdown. Tears and everything. 

I felt embarrassed for myself. Thirty-eight years old and, for all I knew, I’d just worked for free.

By the time my husband came home, I’d composed myself from the earlier outburst and had spent the afternoon applying for more jobs while also doing some family and household chores. Most of the jobs were further zero-hours contract positions. Some didn’t even say how many hours you might get. 

For the next six days I waited for any news from either the shop I’d worked at that week, or anything from the multiple applications I’d made daily.

Then, I got a call from the shop manager, giving me 12 hours of shifts for the next working week, including a request to bring identification and supporting evidence for my national insurance number and address. Finally, I had a job!

I love the job. The staff are all fantastic to work with. My manager is lovely, and working outside of the house has given me freedom from the old routine and occasional cabin fever. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my home-based salon and it gave me the ability to work around my family commitments. But living and working from one space can become monotonous and leave you feeling like the walls are closing in.

Working face to face with the public has always been something I’ve enjoyed. It’s nice to see people going about their daily lives and talking with customers. Me being me, bringing a smile to work can be infectious, making even the occasional grump or someone in a hurry smile back. It a satisfying feeling.

I need this job to work out, as I really like it. But eight to 12 hours of shifts isn’t enough to financially support my family at minimum wage — £62-£96 per week isn’t going to go far. We buy the barest of essentials when we do our weekly shop as it is, yet still that’s £80 per week. I might not even be able to cover that. I’m constantly gripped with worry that I’m not earning enough, but I really want it to work out. 

Thankfully, the majority of shifts have so far been during school hours, and when I have been shifted for times outside then, my family and friends have been able to help with school runs and caring responsibilities. 

Yet again, I’m constantly worried about what will happen if I can’t get help. It is £6 per hour at the after-school club. 

If I need to use those facilities, I’m going to lose a big portion of my wages to cover the cost. Plus, only getting our next shifts with less than a week’s notice, doesn’t always give me enough time for making childcare arrangements.

This certainly doesn’t help. It’s already had an impact on my stress levels, as I don’t do well with last-minute arrangements regarding the kids. And it doesn’t give them stability or consistency.

So I’ve asked again for set hours. These might be available during the run-up to the Christmas period. However, there’s no certainty or guarantee. Plus there was an indication that hours would not exceed 16, so the company can avoid employer contributions. 

More staff rather than secure hours seems to be the company line. What financial benefit does it provide them? 

Surely avoiding corporate responsibility to employees and society by avoiding such contributions isn’t a good business model? Why is this being used by so many?

This leaves me more depressed and worried about the company, even though I like the job itself.

Common sense would suggest giving employees better working hours and the ability to earn a decent wage packet would produce better productivity in the long run. 

Happier staff means better outcomes in performance, health and employer retention. Surely this is easy for anyone to see?

I’m still applying for different jobs on a daily basis. I’m trying desperately to find something more financially suitable in the long term for both me and my family. 

I’m genuinely worried that writing this is only putting the position I currently have and any future position at risk, because I dare to speak out about the truth of living with zero-hours insecure work. I can’t let that stop me!

I’m lucky. Others out there are facing this challenge and these working conditions without the support of another income into their household. 

My husband works hard and increases his hours to make up for my shortfall. But he shouldn’t have to, especially as he’s nearly 50 and isn’t a robot. 

I don’t want to be afraid to use my voice, if it helps others understand why we must change this culture.

“Flexibility,” some call it. In my experience a black hole of unknowns is the reality when you’re living it — and I’ve only been doing this for four weeks.



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