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

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In her 33 years on this Earth, Rose Atkinson has had 35 jobs. She has them listed in a black pocket book: waitress, chef, barmaid, life mannequin, artist’s assistant, tailor, costumier, care employee. She has waited tables and constructed Christmas decorations and cared for the dying. Since she was 14, Atkinson has labored. And, in all this time, she has by no means been paid greater than £12 an hour – and that was solely as soon as, in her most up-to-date job. Virtually all of those jobs had been on zero-hours contracts, which implies she has had no assured earnings for shut to twenty years.

Zero-hours contracts first made headlines a decade in the past, after Guardian reporting, though they’ve been round longer. “Making an attempt to get out of employment regulation is about as previous as employment regulation itself,” says Jeremias Adams-Prassl, a regulation professor on the College of Oxford. It’s estimated that greater than 1 million individuals within the UK are on zero‑hours contracts, with an additional 3.6 million in insecure work. (Zero‑hours contracts aren’t a particular class of contract, however quite confer with work that’s informal in nature and doesn’t have agreed minimal hours or pay.) “The UK labour market is probably the most frivolously regulated labour market, after the US, on this planet,” says Adams-Prassl. He sees many zero-hours contracts as inherently exploitative. “Enterprise is threat,” he says. “What you do with zero-hours contracts is take the whole threat of the enterprise and shift it on to the person employee.”

Atkinson is an avid diary‑keeper. She has been writing about her life, on and off, since she was seven. After we meet, in a restaurant close to her residence, she stacks the peeling paper notebooks on the desk in entrance of us. They’re edged with black-and-gold tape and embellished with photos from vogue magazines and previous prepare tickets, gig flyers and images. Her diaries recount her goals, actually and figuratively, and categorical her frustrations and the mundane particulars of her life. Additionally they doc, with extraordinary element, what practically 20 years on zero-hours contracts appears like. Her diaries inform us a lot concerning the actuality of life and work in low‑paid Britain.

“So,” she says, opening the primary pocket book. “These are the roles I can bear in mind. The place do I start?”

Atkinson has bleached hair with a purple tint and extra piercings than I can rely. She swears like a sailor and clothes like a goth, in black garments she hand-dyes utilizing bleach and stencils. She is a eager artist and studied vogue atelier and tailoring at college. Assembly for the primary time outdoors her residence in Streatham, south London, I do know instantly which bed room is hers: the upstairs window is papered with prints. Inside, the room is full of rails of handmade jumpers and clothes. Atkinson could make something. She even makes her personal underwear.

She is a type of individuals who will discuss to anybody, taking trip of her day to assist mums on buses, or people who find themselves misplaced and don’t converse English. “It by no means ends!” she says by e mail after considered one of our conferences. “Now chasing somebody spherical Tooting who’s having an autistic meltdown.” Atkinson is autistic, too, and has consideration deficit hyperactivity dysfunction (ADHD). It is among the causes she thinks she has spent practically 20 years on zero-hours contracts.

After her mother and father separated when she was 10, Atkinson settled along with her mom and youthful brother in Langport, Somerset. They lived in a two-bedroom council home with a gap within the wall that they needed to stuff with newspaper in winter. Her mom managed a veterinary surgical procedure, however funds had been tight. “I ran the home at 10 years previous, as a result of my mum was working,” she says. “By the point I used to be doing my GCSEs, I used to be working seven nights every week, after which Saturday and Sunday daytimes, and that was simply to appear like a traditional child who may purchase garments and have my college uniform.”

She has at all times been artistic, studying to knit at 4 by watching her mum do it in entrance of the TV. “It’s not even a vocation,” she says. “I can’t exist with out stitching and knitting and making.”

Atkinson has struggled along with her psychological well being since childhood and was identified with bipolar dysfunction in her teenagers. This, mixed along with her diagnoses of autism and ADHD and her low-income background, is why she believes she has been trapped in insecure work. She is just not alone. In response to authorities statistics, solely 29% of autistic individuals are in employment, the second-lowest proportion for any incapacity. The Nationwide Autistic Society places the determine for full-time paid work held by autistic adults even decrease, at 16%. Knowledge from the thinktank the Work Basis reveals that 38% of autistic staff are in “severely insecure” work, similar to zero-hours contracts.

“Autistic individuals are not simply deprived relative to the final inhabitants. Even throughout the disabled inhabitants, they’re much less prone to be in work,” says Dr James Cusack, the chief government of Autistica, an autism analysis charity.

As an adolescent, Atkinson had the routine jobs youngsters have, in native cafes, pubs and eating places. In 2009, she was at sixth-form school, learning 3D design, however her psychological well being took a downward flip and he or she needed to drop out for a yr. She resumed her research at a special school, the place she accomplished a BTec in artwork.

She acquired a job in a resort, the place she was paid £4 an hour to attend tables. She didn’t prefer it and felt bullied by the pinnacle chef. “I didn’t bow right down to her, so she was worse with me,” Atkinson says. She grew to hate it a lot that she left with out even choosing up her last paycheck.

She began work at a pub. “I walked in there and the landlady mentioned: ‘I preserve all the cash within the airing cabinet. Right here’s the float. You receives a commission £6 an hour. We’ve got a 24-hour licence.’” She sat behind the bar knitting, studying Wuthering Heights and holding the pub open for late-night drinkers.

Atkinson has worked many bar jobs
The thought of additional pub work fills Atkinson with dread. {Photograph}: Franco Nadalin/Alamy

In late 2010, 20-year-old Atkinson moved from Langport to Rochester in Kent, to review for a level on the College for the Inventive Arts. Inside every week, she began working as a barmaid and prepare dinner at a neighborhood pub. They paid her £4.45 an hour, beneath the minimal wage, however she took it as a result of she wanted the cash. Punters refused to settle their tabs, or sexually harassed her as she went to vary barrels or accumulate glasses. With out an employment contract, Atkinson had no safety. “I’ve no means of defending myself,” she wrote in her diary. “If I say one thing to a buyer, my job is on the road and my managers will go mad at me.”

One afternoon in late 2011, Atkinson was working within the kitchen when the deep-fat fryer exploded. “It was terrifying,” she says. She will nonetheless bear in mind the crackling of the flames as they licked the ceiling. The fireplace brigade put out the fireplace and nobody was injured. Her bosses refurbished the pub with the insurance coverage cash. Atkinson stayed there till 2012, when she had lastly had sufficient.

Throughout this time, Atkinson was a full-time pupil, or making an attempt to be. What was meant to be a three-year diploma took her 5 years. She struggled to handle her psychological well being and stability work with the necessities of her course. “The strain at college was horrible,” she says. She lived first in halls after which with a buddy. They subsisted on rice and mushrooms. Atkinson had £20 a month to spend on non-essentials. On 3 June 2011, she wrote in her diary: “We are able to’t pay our payments in the intervening time. No web, no TV. The repo man got here as a result of we hadn’t paid the lease.”

After her buddy stopped paying the lease, they had been evicted. In 2011, Atkinson moved into the spare room of one other buddy – a daily from the pub. “At first I used to be a bit like: ‘I’m 20 and this man is 40.’ However he was simply great. He’s nonetheless great.” She labored as a life mannequin for the council’s grownup studying centre. The pay was good – £9.57 an hour – however the work was zero-hours and the council generally took months to pay her.

She thought of dropping out of college, however her landlord wouldn’t hear of it. “I had no cash in any respect,” Atkinson says. “So he let me stay there totally free. Not solely did he let me stay there totally free, he gave me £3,000 to complete my diploma. I’ve by no means even informed my mum that.”

In June 2015, Atkinson graduated with a third-class diploma. Her diary from the time expresses her hope for a extra affluent future. She wrote lists of designers she admired, together with Elsa Schiaparelli and Freddie Robins, and messages to herself, similar to: “I wish to be a full-time artist.” She started making use of for vogue jobs instantly. However her optimism shortly dissipated as she realised that, with out a place to remain in London whereas finishing unpaid internships, or mother and father who may financially assist her as she appeared for entry-level roles, her choices had been restricted.

Right here, once more, Atkinson isn’t any statistical outlier. Evaluation of knowledge from the Workplace for Nationwide Statistics, undertaken by researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh, reveals that simply 7.9% of artistic staff have a working-class background – a determine that has halved for the reason that Nineteen Seventies.

The thought of doing pub work once more stuffed her with dread; to at the present time, the scent of alcohol makes her really feel sick. Determined not to return into service business jobs, Atkinson acquired by on common credit score. When she visited the jobcentre in Chatham, “I’d are available in there crying”.

The style business is infamous for requiring individuals to undertake unpaid internships to get a foothold. When Atkinson did get alternatives, commuting from Kent took up a big a part of her wage. In 2016, she acquired full-time work as a contract seamstress. She woke at 5am to get to work in London on time. After a few month, she realised that she was being paid on a piecework foundation, which means she acquired paid for every merchandise accomplished. As she had been allowed to do hems solely, she wouldn’t be paid for her work. She stop.

She was nonetheless dwelling in her buddy’s spare room, however she had began paying lease once more. She was again on common credit score, which was £317 a month. After her £300-a-month lease, this left her £17 for meals and payments.

Atkinson spent her time searching the job web sites Certainly and Adecco and attending conferences on the jobcentre. A few of the hiring practices for the roles she secured had been positively Victorian. There was the rice-packing manufacturing unit on an industrial property, which she discovered about by Certainly. It was minimum-wage work. “You’d get there at 6am,” she says. “They’d a register and also you needed to hope your identify was on it. In case your identify wasn’t on it, you needed to hope another person hadn’t turned up, so you could possibly get the shift.” For 12 hours, she stacked packets of rice on to pallets. “It was mind-numbing,” she says.

In early 2016, a £7-an-hour job as a seamstress at a manufacturing unit appeared promising. She sewed hats and caps for colleges and sports activities golf equipment. The work was high-quality; straightforward, even. However the social aspect of issues was inconceivable, which could be frequent for individuals with autism. Her colleagues didn’t like her, she says. Makes an attempt to attach with them, for instance by asking a few colleague’s marriage ceremony, went badly. Atkinson felt misunderstood and ostracised. Throughout her breaks, she sat on the fireplace escape and cried. After just a few months, she left.

Her autism means “I give individuals this uncanny valley feeling,” she says. In response to analysis from the Nationwide Autistic Society, 48% of in-work autistic individuals have skilled bullying or harassment. Atkinson believes that she has been repeatedly bullied all through her profession, which Cusack says is frequent: “It typically comes right down to breakdowns in communication, or lack of acceptable assist … how autistic individuals understand and perceive issues could be totally different to how non-autistic individuals handle and really feel issues. There must be assist in managing that relationship between each events.”

Dwelling with autism and poor psychological well being makes even easy duties, similar to catching a bus to a job interview, fraught and stuffed with nervousness. In Atkinson’s case, the unreliability of regional buses doesn’t assist.

One diary entry, from 5 April 2016, reads: “I needed to go to a job interview in the present day.” It was for an admin function. “I purchased the mistaken bus ticket on-line and the app didn’t work on my cellphone. Needed to borrow cash till the refund got here to get this bus. Then I needed to go and signal on … First leg of the day over. Subsequent got here the anticipate the subsequent bus. Bus journey uneventful however there was dangerous site visitors so I used to be late. Panicked after calling to say I used to be late. Couldn’t bear in mind the place to go so I needed to name once more and ask for assist. Lastly discovered one of many similar unmarked workplace buildings. Flustered. Sizzling. On the verge of tears. The recruiter was there with a glass of water and guaranteed me nobody minded. Received by the interview. Felt assured, glad, achieved one thing. Received to bus cease. Waited an hour. Bus driver refuses my ticket. Lose my shit. Even when I get the job, I’ll by no means be capable of get that bus.”

Rose Atkinson, who has worked almost her whole career in zero-hours roles, in her kitchen
Atkinson in her kitchen. {Photograph}: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

By now, her wealthier coursemates had been establishing careers in vogue, with monetary help from their mother and father. Atkinson’s sense of injustice was rising. She was nonetheless dwelling as a lodger in Rochester, getting by month to month on common credit score. “I sit on this home each single day not even capable of purchase a can of soup for lunch,” she wrote. “I stay on one meal a day. I’m so depressed and lonely. I can’t even exit and meet or hang around with a buddy as I can’t afford journey or a bottle of water.”

Atkinson pauses as she reads. “It’s actually attention-grabbing to see how horrible it was – and the way horrible I turned due to it.”

By 2017, the erratic and insecure nature of her work was eroding her fragile psychological well being additional. She struggled to get off the bed and fundamental self-care turned a wrestle. Her hair was matted, as she barely brushed it. “Poverty is a elementary driver of poor psychological well being,” says Shari McDaid, the pinnacle of coverage and public affairs for Scotland, Wales and Northern Eire on the Psychological Well being Basis. “The proof on that may be very clear.”

In 2022, McDaid reviewed the scientific literature on zero-hours contracts. “Our overriding discovering was an affiliation between staff on zero-hours contracts and the chance of reporting a psychological well being issue or decrease psychological wellbeing.” She cites a examine of zero‑hours staff within the UK that discovered that they had been 44% extra prone to report a psychological well being situation in contrast with these with common contracted hours.

McDaid says there are a selection of contributing elements. “One is that individuals aren’t incomes sufficient,” she says. “Different research level to the uncertainty round your hours. The unpredictability of it precipitated misery. And there’s additionally a query of whether or not feeling powerless might underpin poor psychological well being – feeling such as you don’t have a lot of a say in your employment relationship.”

By 2017, Atkinson was unmotivated, sad and broke. “I felt completely hopeless,” she says. Her associate on the time prompt care work. Atkinson was not thrilled on the prospect. “I grew up on a council property,” she says. “Solely two of us went to school; everybody else turned a care employee. That was my large factor. I used to be like: I’m going to go to school and attempt to do nicely. No matter I do, I’m not going to finish up in care work.”

However she did – and it ended up being the primary common contract she’d ever had. In spring 2017, she acquired a £500-a-week job as a live-in care employee for a pair in Kent. The husband had Alzheimer’s and the spouse was restricted to her mattress. Atkinson was contracted to work 56 hours every week, however she often labored nearer to 100. She spent her small quantity of spare time in her bed room, listening to podcasts and knitting. She was lonely.

The work sample was two weeks on, one week off. She was not paid for her week off and he or she wanted someplace to stay throughout that week, so she rented a home for £660 a month. It belonged to a buddy of a buddy’s mom, who needed somebody to handle it whereas she was away. In her weeks off, Atkinson picked up zero-hours shifts as an evening care employee, at £60 every. Travelling throughout rural Kent by bus added hours of unpaid journey time to her day. Typically the company acquired the tackle mistaken and he or she missed her shift, she says. She was not paid for that, both.

In 2018, the person with Alzheimer’s died. Atkinson made his final days snug. She organized for a hospital mattress to be delivered to his home and dressed him in his greatest pyjamas. She was there on the finish. It was fast and quiet. dying.

“Due to my neurodivergence, I work greatest when everybody else is in disaster,” Atkinson says. “I do know what to do. Irrespective of how previous your dad is, when he dies, it’s going to be horrible, and your coronary heart goes to be damaged and also you gained’t be capable of breathe. And I do know precisely what to say to you. I do know precisely what to do.”

She labored as a live-in care employee for different shoppers in Kent till 2019. It was all-consuming and isolating. Typically Atkinson needed to take extended breaks because of her psychological well being. Due to this, by June 2019, she was £6,000 in debt and paying £110 a month in overdraft charges. She was nonetheless dwelling at her buddy’s mom’s home, however was in arrears on her lease. In August 2019, she took a job as a care assistant on the dementia wing of a care residence. It was a contracted job: 44 hours every week, £8.10 an hour.

Originally, she favored it. She watched Poldark and danced to the Rolling Stones with the residents. But it surely was additionally arduous work. One of many residents had psychosis, in addition to dementia, and would smear excrement on the partitions and throw her meals out the window.

Atkinson was good at her job. She may get a whole flooring of residents fed, dressed of their pyjamas and prepared for mattress on her personal. However she started whistleblowing about issues she discovered unacceptable, particularly regarding resident security. This didn’t endear her to her managers. “If I see one thing that’s mistaken, I flag it,” she says. “And I proceed flagging it till it’s handled.”

Residents at a care home enjoy an activities session including dominoes
Atkinson endured lengthy, lonely hours as a live-in care employee. {Photograph}: Stuart Boulton/Alamy

In 2020, Covid hit. Atkinson fell ailing in March. The care residence went into lockdown, however she says that her managers failed so as to add her to the rota and didn’t reply her emails and calls. “I acquired ghosted from the job,” she claims. She was dwelling alone, with no earnings. “My individuals had been now dying of Covid,” she says. “On daily basis, I’m getting a textual content saying: ‘This particular person’s died at this care residence.’” She cried within the queue for the grocery store. She fell additional behind on her lease.

In July 2020, she began work as an exercise coordinator at one other care residence. She had a contract and was paid £9.10 an hour. The identical month, she was evicted from her buddy’s mom’s home. Atkinson’s mom offered her automobile to present her the cash for the deposit on a one-bedroom, £700-a-month flat close to work. It was the one place that had ever felt like her personal.

She organized video calls with residents’ households and did arts and crafts, dance events, face-painting and manicures. In some ways, the job suited her nicely, but it surely didn’t work out. As soon as once more, she felt she was being bullied. She got here residence each evening crying. In October, in opposition to her needs, her physician took her off her antipsychotic medicine. She couldn’t sleep with out it, so she ended up in A&E. “I used to be hallucinating and extremely ailing,” she says now.

A part of the issue is Atkinson’s nature. She works arduous, however she gained’t carry out the meek subservience many low-paid jobs count on. She is proud. If Atkinson feels she isn’t being revered, she reacts badly. That is partly as a result of she is neurodivergent. “I discover jobs actually arduous, even once I’m actually good at them, as a result of I don’t have the social abilities and every little thing that goes with it,” she says.

Autistic individuals are prone to expertise stigma and unfavorable stereotyping within the office. A YouGov ballot in 2019 discovered that 27% of respondents thought an autistic particular person can be unlikely to slot in their workforce, whereas 31% thought that autistic individuals required an excessive amount of assist. “These statistics again up the concern and nervousness a lot of autistic individuals have about becoming a member of the office,” says Jake Runacres of the Nationwide Autistic Society.

She handed in her discover in January 2021. “I can’t do something,” she wrote in her diary. “I can barely pay my payments. Why am I doing this? That is so horrible. I’m an artist. I’m educated.” With out an earnings, she had to surrender her flat. “It was the one place that was mine, that had my identify on it,” she says now. “I used to be secure for the primary time ever.”

She moved in along with her then boyfriend in London. She was 31. Maybe now, with a London postcode, she would lastly be capable of get her profession within the artistic arts off the bottom.

Advocates of zero-hours contracts are inclined to argue that they provide versatile employment that advantages workers and employers. “However from the proof we’ve seen, individuals are on zero-hours contracts as a result of they don’t have an alternative choice,” says McDaid. “They aren’t highly effective within the labour drive. They don’t have the power to get a greater job.”

At 31, with a patchy resume, Atkinson needed to take what work was supplied to her. In January 2021, she discovered a job by Certainly. A small vogue model was searching for somebody to supply, manufacture and design a bikini assortment. She may do the work simply, however they had been providing solely £150 for 20 hours of labor every week, which was beneath the minimal wage. Atkinson requested for extra money. They mentioned no.

In November, she began working at a costumier in west London. The corporate equipped garments and props to movies and TV reveals. It was zero-hours work – she invoiced them for her time, at £10 an hour. She stayed there till January 2022, when she was let go. She was nonetheless dwelling along with her boyfriend. Their relationship was deteriorating, however she couldn’t depart, as a result of she had no cash to place down a deposit on one other place.

In Could 2022, the connection broke down. She went to stick with her mom, who now lived in Orkney. “I’m going to remain right here till I’ve information a few job,” she wrote in her diary. “As soon as I’ve acquired a contract written and signed I can search for a tenancy. It’s the boredom that’s attending to me. Lets me ruminate and get anxious and cry. I simply have to preserve making use of for jobs and never let the boredom get to me. Apply for jobs day-after-day.”

Shortly after, Atkinson moved right into a hostel in Waterloo, central London, and started working as a contract seamstress for a small vogue model, once more on a zero‑hours contract. In June 2022, she was hospitalised for her psychological well being. She had gone to hospital complaining of nerve ache, however when she informed workers that she was suicidal, they admitted her to a psychiatric unit. It was right here that she was informed by a health care provider that she was not, in actual fact, bipolar. “He mentioned it’s my autism and ADHD, that’s what’s making you mad.”

Does she suppose she can be so unwell if she wasn’t poor? “No. As a result of I may pay for personal remedy,” she says. When she acquired out of hospital, she was positioned in a girls’s refuge after which by the council in emergency housing.

This is the place in Streatham, the place she resides, a yr later, once we meet. She has needed to depart her lodging repeatedly prior to now month to remain in a single day along with her new boyfriend, because of security considerations: one other resident has been dealing medication. She has to signal a register every morning. She has a tiny kitchenette with no amenities to prepare dinner a correct meal, so she largely eats prepared meals that she buys from Lidl. She wants permission to remain away for the evening. She is just not allowed a pet. There are 27,000 individuals on the social housing listing in her borough; the typical ready time for somebody in Atkinson’s scenario is 8.1 years.

She utilized for the private independence fee, which is an allowance given to individuals with disabilities and long-term well being situations, however her declare was rejected. She survives on common credit score and housing profit. After she pays her lease in her emergency housing, which is £736 a month, however lined by housing profit, she has £715 to stay on a month. If she had been to take a full-time job for lower than about £25,000 a yr, she would have much less cash to stay on, as she would lose her housing profit and must pay council tax, in addition to commuting prices.

“I’m perceived as lazy as a result of I gained’t work for nothing,” says Atkinson. “So that you’re saying I’m not value ample housing. You’re saying I’m not allowed to have a vacation. Or exit.” She struggles with emotions of inadequacy. “You’re informed you’re nugatory until you’re producing and dealing.”

When she will get interviews now, she doesn’t land the job. She thinks she comes throughout badly. “They are saying: ‘Inform me about your self.’ I’m autistic. I don’t even know what which means.” The interview course of, says Runacres, is usually not arrange for neurodivergent individuals. “It might probably put them at an instantaneous drawback,” he says. “Recruiters typically assess individuals on how they reply to unfamiliar questions with individuals they’ve by no means met, typically in environment with shiny lights. That may be anxious for them.”

Atkinson is aware of that her story is chaotic and complicated. It has been chaotic and complicated for her to stay. If there’s a theme operating by all her jobs, it’s that insecure work and low pay has positioned an insupportable pressure on her fragile psychological well being. “All these breakdowns are me burning out,” she says.

Profession tales similar to Atkinson’s might quickly be relics of the previous. Labour has dedicated to banning zero-hour contracts. It’s understood that its plan would require employers to supply staff a contract primarily based on the hours routinely labored over a 12-week reference interval. With opinion polls predicting a Labour victory, it appears doubtless that zero-hour contracts are on their means out.

Atkinson welcomes Labour’s proposals, though her optimism is restricted. She factors out that she was paid beneath the minimal wage and undertook unpaid internships though these had been unlawful on the time. “All of it sounds nice,” she says. “My drawback is enforcement.”

Regardless of every little thing she has been by, Atkinson is happier now than she has ever been: “I’ve been centered on restoration for over a yr.” Her new boyfriend is form and supportive. She has a membership at a neighborhood pool – it’s the one non-essential buy she permits herself out of her advantages – and goes swimming nearly day-after-day. “I’m not being mentally destroyed by working any extra,” she says.

She would like to do a grasp’s to develop into an artwork therapist, however many programs require you to undertake private non-public remedy, which she will’t afford. Her ambitions are comparatively small. “I’d love a home with a backyard that’s sufficiently big in order that I can get a cat, and a spare bed room so I can have a house studio. That’s my dream.” However, in the intervening time, it feels about as achievable as going to the moon. Atkinson smiles a small, wan smile. “I don’t simply wish to stay,” she says. “I wish to thrive. And I don’t suppose that’s an excessive amount of to ask.”

Within the UK and Eire, Samaritans could be contacted on freephone 116 123, or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. Within the US, you possibly can name or textual content the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on or textual content HOME to 741741 to attach with a disaster counselor. In Australia, the disaster assist service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Different worldwide helplines could be discovered at

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