New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the UK. Photo: Getty
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Why women are the worst affected by zero hours contracts

Zero hours contracts are widely used in the care sector, where women make up the majority of the workforce.

The measure of a society is found in how it treats its weakest and most helpless citizens, we often say.

But how about the way it treats those looking after its weakest citizens?

New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the United Kingdom. To a large degree this can be explained by how wide spread the use of this form of employment has become in the care sector, a part of the labour market dominated by women. 

Research for the Low Pay Commission found that nearly 60 per cent of domiciliary care sector workers are on zero hour contracts. This form of employment requires you to be available for work, but your employer is under no obligation to provide it.

In domiciliary care zero hour contracts have been common for over a decade and is currently the predominant form of employment. It’s often a matter of no choice for workers.

You either accept it, or you don’t have a job. 

Receiving the National Minimum Wage for care work is also not guaranteed since employers do not always adequately cover travel time between clients.

Interestingly it seems that it is employers in the voluntary sector (34 per cent) and the public sector (24 per cent) that are more likely to use these contracts, not private sector employers (17 per cent). However private companies that deliver publicly funded services, mainly in health, social care and education, also commonly use them.

Zero hour contracts are not just about businesses trying to make more money and have flexibility on their terms, but charities with mission statements about doing good and the public sector which cares for our parents, our children and our sick.

Austerity is naturally part of the explanation for the rise of these contracts but not the whole story, as mentioned before they have been common in care for over a decade.

The fact that women are the majority of workers on zero hour contracts should however not come as a surprise. Care work, in almost any labour market in the world is performed by an insecure, vulnerable and largely female work force.

Traditionally care was conducted in the home. Based on empathy, love and nurturing, it was seen as a complement to the harsh male world of market competition and money.  Care was something women did out of love and because they simply were female. It was their gentle nature in action. It had nothing to do with money, the story went.

When care moved out of the home and into the hospitals, nurseries and retirement homes, this idea remained strong. To take care of others was something one did because one was a good person. Not because one wanted a career or to earn a living.

It is telling that many of the first nurses were nuns who had sworn an oath of poverty.

The logic remains with us today.

Professional nurses, carers and child minders are simply extending their natural family role as nurturers, we believe on some level. Therefore they do not need to be paid very well for doing it.  It’s not a real job, at least not in the same way as many men’s jobs. It doesn’t require training or skills in the same way.

“Anyone can do it.”

At least any women.

The problem is that care is a real job. A very important one. Just look at the research into children’s early years: about how brain sensitivity to language, numeracy, social skills and emotional control all peak before the age of four. The care children get during the first four years of their life determines their success more than most other things. How can we know this and at the same time treat child care as a job anyone can do? How can we not make the investments in steady, consistent and well-educated members of staff? We know it will save society money down the line. It costs a lot more to try to make up for what children lose during these early years later, than to simply fix it then.   

To look after the elderly and the sick also requires skill and it requires time. The rise of zero hour contracts means that vulnerable and disabled people increasingly receive care in short fragments, sometime just fifteen minutes. It’s not enough to meet basic human needs. And not being able to do a good job puts tremendous stress on the work force in this sector.

Zero hour contracts is a women’s issue. It’s also an issue about what we value in society and why. What is seen as a real job and what is not. Who’s contribution is considered important and who’s considered doing something “anyone can do”.

Should this really be how we treat those who look after our most vulnerable citizens?

And what does that say about us?

Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics is published by Portobello Books today (5 March).

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.