Karen worked in the care sector. She had to be available to visit clients at their homes at least six days a week, including evenings. Her rota could change in a flash. If visits were cancelled at late notice, she often wouldn't be paid.
If visits were added at the last minute, she'd have to manage her childcare commitments as she best could.
This is because Karen, who features in a report by my Labour parliamentary colleagues in Merseyside, was on a zero-hours contract that did not oblige her employer to offer guaranteed hours of work. She has since managed to find a permanent job, leaving behind an estimated 307,000 other care workers still on zero-hours contracts in England.
According to the Resolution Foundation, with the pace of recovery uncertain, many employers have turned to zero-hours contracts – under which the employee is not guaranteed work and is paid only for the work he or she carries out, but is usually expected to be around whenever the employer needs them to be. They say that in many areas, where the prospect of normal employment is minimal, zero-hours contracts have become ubiquitous. And under this government their use has ballooned – the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimates that up to one million employees are now on them.
Some people welcome the flexibility of a zero-hours contract. But their growth is symptomatic of a wider issue – increasing job insecurity and falling living standards in David Cameron's Britain. In addition to the growth in zero-hours contracts, we have seen rising casualisation. According to TUC analysis of official figures, almost half the rise in employment since 2010 has been in temporary work.
Ministers trumpet this as evidence of flexibility in our labour market, but for most working people the reality is insecurity for them and their families. Little wonder that those in work now feel less secure and more pressured at work than at any time in 20 years according to the most recent UK Skills and Employment Survey. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which co-funded the survey, refers to what we have now as a "climate of fear". Inevitably, this impacts on consumer confidence and demand when people worry where the next pay cheque will come from, never mind the fact they are earning £1,477 less a year on average than they were in 2010.
A government serious about building a fairer society would not stand for this and sit idly by in the face of growing insecurity for its citizens. First, we have to prioritise growing those sectors that are globally competitive and can deliver the high-skilled, secure jobs at decent rates of pay for people that we desperately need – a global race to the top (not the bottom). So, if elected, we would work across government to implement comprehensive, sector specific, industrial strategies to do just that. As Vince Cable has admitted, his government's approach to industrial strategy has been "rather piecemeal".
Second, where sectors are not so high skilled, more domestic in nature and employers compete on cost, government must use all the levers at its disposal to incentivise firms to adopt business models that pay people a living wage and treat them fairly. Where there is exploitation and abuse, we will act to stamp it out.
This is all vital to building a more responsible capitalism and is in the self-interest of firms – a plethora of research shows that if you pay employees properly and they feel secure, they are more committed and productive. It is also fiscally responsible for us to do this – if all those currently on the minimum wage received the living wage it is estimated there would be a £2.2bn saving to the exchequer through higher income tax and national insurance receipts.
So for Labour, unlike the Tories, any old job won't do. We are determined to work in partnership with business not only towards our goal of full employment, but for more secure jobs for working people so they can get on and meet their aspirations.