This book has drawn on interviews with women in precarious work to understand how they managed work alongside unpaid care. While the women’s accounts were diverse, a story has emerged about how and why this balancing act is so difficult and what could be done to support these women in the future with family-friendly rights. This final chapter recaps the key findings before outlining some considerations that could shape future attempts to provide family-friendly rights for precarious workers.
Analyzing the accounts of work and care that women provided in their interviews, powerful themes have emerged about the lack of choice, low and fluctuating pay levels, fear of reprisals, imbalance of bargaining power and intensified managerial control that they experienced in precarious jobs. We have seen in Chapter One that the women did not choose precarious work but took it because other work in their chosen field or in their local area was not available. When the women started work, they had little power to negotiate care-friendly work patterns. Employers determined the rate of pay and set the timing and patterns of work. Making ends meet was difficult, and women used a range of strategies to make their money last until the end of their pay period, including paying attention to food and transport costs, borrowing, and selling items if they needed to. All of this had an effect on their ability to negotiate with their employers. It meant that the women needed to prioritize getting immediate or future work to secure their ongoing income.
As we have seen from Chapter Three, interviewees provided much care themselves through very busy daily routines and rounds of scheduling around their precarious work. However, as this chapter shows, women also played the role of care coordinators. This meant that the women felt ultimately responsible for organizing care and helping with large decisions; for example, deciding whether an elderly relative should move into a home, or helping a parent with mental health problems to liaise with service providers. Essentially, women organized other family members, co-parents, schools, nurseries and paid care workers to provide care in what this study terms ‘care networks’.
I have dedicated a chapter to care networks because they were so important in the interviewed women’s lives. Care networks describe complex, collective and multi-institution arrangements involving different forms of informal and formal care provided by family, friends, schools, nurseries and care workers. Care networks might be fragile or partial, leaving women with much of the day-to-day work of providing care, or they might provide valuable, regular wrap-around support.
Women interviewed for this book reported that their care networks allowed them to access precarious work in the first place – the networks were shaped in such a way that they fitted around the irregular, episodic or interrupted work schedules the women had. When care networks worked well, they were invisible to employers. When women arrived at work, the employer would only see one person, not the rounds of telephone calls with family or ex-partners or quickly made bargains with friends.
Chapters Three and Four showed that work and care interrelated in women’s lives to a great extent. Care was never absent from these women’s working lives, even when it might be invisible to managers and co-workers. Women put immense work into setting up, maintaining and repairing care networks, using personal relationships, scheduling and many other strategies to manage care while they were at work. As such, we could describe the relationship between care and work as being dynamic, with these women at the intersection between the two spheres, trying to manage their precarious employment alongside their unpaid care responsibilities. Chapter Five focused in particular on how women felt about their jobs and what factors encouraged or prevented them from disclosing a care responsibility at work. Due to the power imbalance at work, women often refrained from “rocking the boat” for fear that they would lose out on future work by being seen as “unreliable”.
This chapter focuses on what happened when it became inevitable that they disclose a care responsibility to a manager; when women could not smoothly manage the tense juxtaposition of shifts, care responsibilities and wider care networks. In other words, this chapter focuses on the moments when the unpaid care work that women did became visible to managers and co-workers. Sometimes this was due to a change in the care needs of a loved one: a health crisis for example, or a change in nursery or schooling patterns.
It’s a cold spring morning and Renuka and I are sitting in a coffee shop in Harrow. Renuka has agreed to be interviewed about her experiences of balancing zero-hours work in a high-street shop with caring for her two young children. We have been talking for nearly an hour. I say to her: “If you had to draw what it feels like to be doing what you are doing right now with work and with the kids, what would you draw?”
Renuka starts sketching. “It would be a headless chicken”, she says. “I can’t draw a chicken. I am just going to put a box and put ‘chicken’”. She draws the square outline of her chicken body and labels it ‘Chicken’s body’.
“These are my hands”, she says, drawing stick arms out to each side. “These are my legs, because I am running”. She draws clouds of dust under her stick feet to show speed.
“You are running quite fast there”, I say.
“I need to juggle”, Renuka says. “Meals. Work. And the reason I don’t have a head is because it’s filled with money worries and so it’s not functioning”.
The headless chicken sits for a moment on the page, with its speedy feet and boxes floating to either side. Renuka labels each of these boxes in turn: meals, work, children. Then we both pause and look at what she’s created. Quietly, she draws another box, which hovers above the chicken’s body like an empty rectangular halo. Renuka adds a label: ‘money worries’.
Care drove these women’s need to get work and shaped their ability to perform particular types of job. It structured the women’s lives on a financial, relational and emotional level. For these reasons, this book focuses on women’s experiences providing care before it goes on to cover women’s experiences at work. This chapter describes the types of care these women performed, who they cared for and how, their daily routines and how they scheduled care. It concludes by exploring the emotional and wider effects of care on women’s lives: the feelings they reported in trying to balance care alongside precarious work, and their sense of being overwhelmed and exhausted. Chapter Four goes on to describe and explore care networks: the varied webs of family, friends, nurseries, partners and ex-partners, grandparents, schools and care workers that women weaved together in order to provide care around their precarious jobs.
Interviewees provided unpaid care in a range of ways and through multiple care commitments. A common theme was women performing what Carers UK has called ‘sandwich care’: caring for a dependent under 18 years of age while also caring for an adult.1 Care was needed in specific daily and weekly rhythms, fitting around other care providers, hospitals and schools. Women’s daily routines involved getting up early, engaging in sequential periods of care and work with little “wiggle room”, sometimes going without sleep, and providing care in their own homes for adults or making regular visits to other people’s homes.
We have seen that the women interviewed for this study did not have much choice about taking on precarious work, did not usually negotiate their pay and were responsible for complex individual and collective arrangements to provide care for others. This chapter moves on to the question of whether these women felt able to disclose a care obligation at work, which is an important step in asserting any of the usual family-friendly rights or in coming to a more informal arrangement. Interviewees reported having little power to negotiate flexible working or to challenge employer-led working arrangements that made care difficult. They focused on the problem of continuing in work with the present employer or finding suitable follow-on work, which resulted in their attention being more on “showing willing” than expressing their need for care-friendly work arrangements. Indeed, these women perceived making informal requests for flexibility to be risky because the requests could identify them as a “liability” to the employers or as “unreliable” in situations where they wanted to avoid antagonizing employers in order to be offered future work. As such, “risky requests” put the responsibility of managing care dilemmas on the women themselves and intensified the stress and the stakes of communicating care needs to their employers.
This chapter begins with how interviewees felt about their work overall. Women described enjoying work, which gave them important social contact and a sense of achievement. Yet women described feeling like “second-class citizens” in the workplace, with worse terms and conditions that others on permanent contracts, and struggling to cope with job uncertainty and last-minute shifts.
The point at which each of the women interviewed for this book entered precarious work in the first place was a crucial one for them. It shaped their ability to provide for themselves and their loved ones financially, and it set in motion a range of daily and weekly working and caring patterns with effects on wider networks of family and friends. This chapter explores these women’s narratives of looking for work and starting precarious jobs.
It is often argued that women choose zero-hours or temporary contracts so as to allow them to better manage unpaid care alongside their jobs. The women on this study told a different set of stories. A common theme was lack of choice. These women did not opt for precarious work in a situation where they felt control over the jobs available to them. They chose zero-hours, temporary, or low-hours jobs because they needed the money and because there was a lack of other work available to them. There was evidence of structural racism affecting which jobs women could take on. Interviewees did not report negotiating over the terms and conditions of their jobs; indeed, as we will also see in Chapter Seven, they believed the power to decide about the types of jobs available and to set terms and conditions resided with the employer or manager. While women did find ways to assert themselves at work, they often could not negotiate care-friendly working patterns right at the outset of their employment.
We have seen in Chapters Five and Six that women encountered a range of problems when disclosing care obligations at work. This chapter focuses on what the women did next. It explores how they found out about family-friendly rights, how they felt about their contracts and what actions they took. Despite all the differences in the women’s jobs and their understanding of the law, every woman interviewed for this project talked about her contract and her boss. For this reason, a key theme in this chapter concerns women’s bargaining power at work: the way that women’s understanding of their contracts and relationships with their managers interacted with their wider circumstances and affected if, when and how they could negotiate at work.1 Bargaining power was in large part shaped by the type of contract women had, so understanding the ‘chill effect’ of particular precarious contracts is important to understanding women’s experiences at work more broadly.
Using this understanding of women’s bargaining power, the chapter then describes what interviewees did when employers responded negatively to their requests or when their overall working environment was hostile to balancing care with work. This is important because on the whole, interviewees wanted to remain in employment and so were faced with an immediate dilemma about how to reconcile competing demands. When they had more bargaining power at work, women asserted their rights, considered legal action or brought children into work. When women had less bargaining power, they absorbed the stress back into their home and care environment, took sick leave to cover care emergencies or they left their jobs.
Most workers on temporary, zero hours and involuntary part-time contracts in the UK are women. Many are also carers. Yet employment law tends to exclude such women from family-friendly rights.
Drawing on interviews with women in precarious work, this book exposes the everyday problems that these workers face balancing work and care. It argues for stronger and more extensive rights that address precarious workers’ distinctive experiences.
Introducing complex legal issues in an accessible way, this crucial text exposes the failures of family-friendly rights and explains how to grant these women effective rights in the wake of COVID-19.
In the documentary film Brexit, Health and Me,1 the drill rapper Drillminister reflects on accountability for political decisions affecting the health of the UK population and the NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Drillminister interview is replete with references to legal forms of accountability: criminal processes, including imprisonment, for stealing, fraud and ‘joint enterprise’, as well as investigatory processes designed to promote transparency, such as Royal Commissions. Interviewer: Your song ‘NI Backstop’ for me was a song about educating, but also that encapsulated the arguments so well. What made you want to do that? Drillminister: Because my main ops is government, my main ops is the people that’s putting us down. What I’m saying, in certain lines like, um, ‘Before the referendum, did the average Joe know what Brexit was?’ – before the referendum, not after, where everybody’s saying, ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit’, saying the buzzword – did they know what Brexit was? No, they didn’t. They had no clue, otherwise they wouldn’t have been driving around with big buses saying, ‘Yeah, 150 million … [corrects self] 350 million … is going back to the NHS’, which is a lie. Which, right now, why is no one in jail for that? Because if I’m a fraud man, and if some Uncle is coming and saying, ‘Yo, I’m putting blah, blah, blah into your account’ … you’d be like, ‘Yo, Uncle, you’re putting that money in my account, yeah’.