New figures show that women labourers make up the majority of zero hour contracts in the UK. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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).

Getty
Show Hide image

The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

0800 7318496