The zero-hours life: Rose Atkinson on hunger, hell and hope in 20 years of precarious work

She is an artist, well educated and determined to earn a good living. But at times Atkinson has had just £17 a month for food and bills. She lays bare the reality of low-paid Britain

In her 33 years on this Earth, Rose Atkinson has had 35 jobs. She has them listed in a black notebook: waitress, chef, barmaid, life model, artist’s assistant, tailor, costumier, care worker. She has waited tables and built Christmas decorations and cared for the dying. Since she was 14, Atkinson has worked. And, in all this time, she has never been paid more than £12 an hour – and that was only once, in her most recent job. Almost all of these jobs were on zero-hours contracts, which means she has had no guaranteed income for close to 20 years.

Zero-hours contracts first made headlines a decade ago, after Guardian reporting, although they have been around longer. “Trying to get out of employment law is about as old as employment law itself,” says Jeremias Adams-Prassl, a law professor at the University of Oxford. It’s estimated that more than 1 million people in the UK are on zero‑hours contracts, with a further 3.6 million in insecure work. (Zero‑hours contracts aren’t a specific category of contract, but rather refer to work that is casual in nature and does not have agreed minimum hours or pay.) “The UK labour market is the most lightly regulated labour market, after the US, in the world,” says Adams-Prassl. He sees many zero-hours contracts as inherently exploitative. “Business is risk,” he says. “What you do with zero-hours contracts is take the entire risk of the business and shift it on to the individual worker.”

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Category: Mental Health