Zero-hours contracts ‘trapping women of colour on low pay‘


Women of colour are almost twice as likely to be on zero-hours contracts as white men and almost one and a half times more likely than white women, according to new research.

The joint report from the Trades Union Congress and the equality organisation Race on the Agenda (Rota) warned that far from providing greater flexibility, zero-hours contracts were trapping women from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in low pay and insecure work, leaving them struggling to pay bills and plan their lives.

According to the research, about one in six zero-hours contract workers are BAME, though BAME workers make up only one in nine workers overall.

The report reveals significant disparities along along the lines of gender and race. For instance, 2.5% of white men were on zero-hours contracts on the last three months of 2020, compared with 4.1% of BME men. The highest proportions were found among BME women, at 4.5%, compared with 3.2% of white women.

The joint report described zero-hours contracts as “the most egregious example of one-sided flexibility at work”, handing the employer total control over their workers’ hours.

It includes polling data that showed 40% of BAME workers on insecure contracts said they faced the threat of losing their shifts if they turned down work, compared with 25% of insecure white workers. The findings “puncture the myth that zero-hours workers like the arrangement”, the report notes.

The polling also shows that half of BAME insecure workers have been allocated a shift at less than a day’s notice, and almost half of BAME insecure workers have had shifts cancelled with less than a day’s notice.

The report warns that this instability means many people’s incomes are subject to the whims of managers, which makes it hard for workers to plan their lives, look after their children and keep medical appointments.

Quick Guide

Zero-hours contracts

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What is a zero-hours contract?

There’s no legal definition of a zero-hours contract, but what is usually meant is a contract between an employer and an employee where no hours are guaranteed. Sometimes the term is used to refer to contracts where a small number of hours are written in but the terms are flexible – the employer might call you in on the day for more work or tell you that you are not needed. You are only paid for the hours you work, and you should be allowed to work for another employer during the rest of the time.

Zero-hours contracts are common in the hospitality industry where business may be seasonal or unpredictable. They are also used in the care sector where the number of clients to be looked after can vary from day to day. Over the past decade the number of people on zero-hours contracts has risen hugelyOfficial figures show that between April and June this year more than 1 million people were on one.

What are your rights if you are made unemployed?

This will depend on whether you are classed as a worker or an employee. If you’re a worker, you won’t be due any redundancy pay. The distinction is difficult, and some people have had to go to court to prove they are employees rather than workers. If you are not allowed to turn down work that you are offered and you are expected to work a similar pattern each week, you are probably an employee.

If you are an employee, you are entitled to statutory redundancy pay as long as you have been working for the company for two years or more. You should be paid for any holidays you have accrued and not used.

“Usually in the case of zero-hours contracts the individual will be considered a worker,” says Matt Gingell, an employment lawyer. “Of course each situation will depend on the wording of the contract and what is happening in practice.”

Tom Neil, a senior adviser at the organisation Acas, says anyone who has started a new job since April should have been given a written statement saying what their status is.

“However, whether they are a worker or employee will also depend on the reality of the situation. So, even if written down it says they are a worker, if the reality of their role and their responsibilities is more akin to an employee then that would take precedence.”

How much will you get paid?

If you are an employee and have been working for the employer for at least two years, you will be entitled to statutory redundancy pay at the minimum. This is based on your age and weekly earnings. When your pay is not the same each week, your employer will normally base what it offers on an average calculated over the past 12 weeks. If you have been on furlough, the calculation should not be based on your earnings during that period but your pay during normal times.

The sum you are paid will be half a week’s pay for every full year you worked and were under 22; one week’s pay for every full year you worked and were aged 22-41; and one-and-a-half week’s pay for every full year aged over 41.

Are you eligible for the job support scheme?

Staff on zero-hours contracts were eligible for furlough and do qualify for the chancellor’s job support scheme, which starts on 1 November. This lets employers claim support for people who are only employed part-time as a result of the pandemic, but also requires payments towards the hours they are not working. Given that zero-hours contracts offer employers the opportunity to call people in only when they need them, there seems to be no incentive for them to use the job support scheme.

Thank you for your feedback.

One woman from Leicester on a zero-hours job delivering frontline Covid-19 services such as vaccination and testing, who wished to be known as PR, said: “Being on a zero-hours contract has worn me down. I’m a 60-year-old woman. Week to week I didn’t know what hours I would be working, or how much money I would make. I’ve been solely focused on keeping my family going and making ends meet.”

PR said she had been subject to direct and indirect institutional racism from her employer. “I haven’t been valued for my cultural understanding with [the] south Asian community, vital for my job serving the predominantly south Asian patients in my community, and treated as disposable – especially compared with other white colleagues. For example, I was never given a contract after requesting one, whereas other were.

“Add to that no sick pay, no holiday pay, and only getting a pension after 2016. I have gone through so much because of this. And I’ve only taken proper sick leave three times in 18 years, when I have had real medical emergencies.”

Last week, PR was told she was no longer needed in her role. She said: “It is devastating. I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. There is a dark cloud hanging over my head.”

The TUC and Rota have called on the government to ban zero-hours contracts and end the “scourge” of insecure work. The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “This is what structural racism at work looks like – BAME workers getting trapped in jobs with the worst pay and the worst conditions, struggling to pay the bills and feed their families.

“Enough is enough. Ministers must challenge the systemic discrimination that holds BME workers back by banning zero-hours contracts and ending the scourge of insecure work. And they must introduce ethnicity pay gap reporting without delay.”

Maurice Mcleod, the CEO of Rota, said: “People from marginalised communities are already most likely to find themselves on these types of contracts, and this is further embedding inequality into our society. Ignoring the impact of structural workplace racism on our society will see inequality grow and moves us even further away from the equal, thriving society we all want to live in.”



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