What is Precarious Work?

While there is no legal definition, the term precarious is used to refer to a type of work which is poorly paid, unprotected, and insecure.

In practice, this captures situations where workers are not aware of their employment status, lack an employment contract, and have no access to basic employment rights such as paid leave or breaks. More seriously, this includes workers who are paid cash in hand, below the National Minimum Wage, and who may inadvertently be working on the black market.

Do you recognise yourself in this description? For advice and support, get in touch with our team today, or use our referral form to refer someone from another organisation. Or, if you want to read more about the systemic drivers of socioeconomic inequality, visit our research page for our latest research reports and briefings. Lastly, you can donate to help fund our work supporting people in precarious work.

The consequences of precarious work

Long-term in-work poverty

Low income from cash in hand jobs paid below NMW rates is the clearest source of in-work poverty. In addition, work conducted without a contract and cash in hand payments makes it hard for individuals to document their employment history and access in-work benefits. Casual work arrangements also hinders career progression, which is another source of in-work poverty.

Insecure living

Our research has shown that workers who are paid cash in hand, below the NMW fail to meet the requirements of letting agencies. Their only option is to sublet illegally in overcrowded accommodation where their deposits are not protected and they are always under the threat of evictions.

Social isolation

Poorly paid work often compels people to work more hours to compensate for the financially insecure nature of the job. This pressure to increase the hours of work leaves little time for socialising which, in turn, damages individual psychological well-being and erodes community relations.

Administrative removal

In the case of EU workers, failure to prove worker status after 3 months of being in the UK can lead to being administratively removed from the UK, and banned from re-entering for up to 2 years. After Brexit, the absence of work documentation may make it more difficult to meet the criteria of the EU Settlement Status application, and thus result in temporary status.

Who is most at risk

While precarious work can affect everyone, the people most at risk are migrant workers with modest levels of education, basic knowledge of English and IT literacy. These constitute multiple barriers to (1) understanding the employment statuses and associated rights of the UK labour market,(2) accessing formal employment, and (3) taking action when employment rights have been breached.

The risk is exacerbated for migrant workers who tend to find employment and information by word of mouth, primarily within ethnic networks, and who are reluctant or unable to claim employment rights due to cultural taboos on challenging a prominent member of one's own diaspora.

What can be done

We believe that precarious work can be eradicated through a joint effort of top-down changes, and community level solutions.

In the short term it is imperative that workers have access to in-depth support tailored to their levels of English, digital literacy, and material means. Our employment rights clinics offer precisely this. We recognise the importance of providing free multilingual advice, and value depth over expediency.

In the long term however, precarious work also requires government action: in sanctioning false self-employment; in making it easier for workers to determine their employment status; in investing in a free service for the investigation of NMW breaches; and in extending legal aid and cutting cost barriers to employment justice.

To help our team challenge precarious work, please consider making a donation

Want to know more?

If you need help with your employment rights, visit our clinic for a free and confidential consultation.

Or learn more about your rights at work.