The number of workers in insecure work grew from 3.2 million in 2011 to 3.7 million in 2019, equating to 11.2% of workers in the UK.
Adding to its call to examine how the rate of sick pay affected the UK’s response to the pandemic, the TUC called on the UK Covid-19 Inquiry to look at how the “unchecked growth” of insecure work left people vulnerable to the pandemic.
More on insecure work:
Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, said ministers let insecure work flourish on their watch.
He said: “The government’s failures to clamp down on the worst employment practices had devastating – and even fatal – consequences for workers.
“Those in insecure work faced markedly higher Covid infections and death rates. And they were hit by a triple whammy of endemic low pay, few workplace rights and low or no sick pay.
“Lots of them were the key workers we all applauded – like care workers, delivery drivers and coronavirus testing staff.”
Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at The Institute for Employment Studies, said insecure workers often work while ill to maintain their income.
Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “The reasons insecure workers are vulnerable may centre around the financial insecurity related to work contracts, and the pressure of ‘needing to work’ to ensure that they have some form of employment to cover living expenses.
“This can result in working excessive hours, or taking on roles that may not have the safeguarding protections of secure work.”
A government study found agency workers at care homes – often employed on zero-hours contracts – unwittingly spread the infection as the pandemic grew.
Gemma Dale, HR lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, said insecure workers were often on the frontline during the pandemic.
Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Insecure work is also often of the type that cannot be done from home, and is in hospitality, retail or the face-to-face service sector, so those undertaking are constantly coming into contact with others, increasing their exposure to viruses or health conditions.”
Bajorek said insecure workers are also more likely to have their workers rights breached.
She said: “Insecure workers are more likely than those in secure work not to receive sick pay, are subject to exploitative working conditions, and work in roles where health and safety precautions are less rigidly implemented.
“Alongside this, insecure work is often done by people who face disadvantage and discrimination who may not be aware of their employment rights.”
The Covid-19 mortality rate for men in insecure occupations was 51 per 100,000 people aged 20-64, compared to 24 per 100,000 for men in more secure occupations.
The female mortality rate in insecure occupations was 25 per 100,000 people, compared to 13 per 100,000 in less insecure occupations.
Dale said government must restructure statutory sick pay (SSP) to protect workers in the future.
SSP is not available to all categories of worker, has three waiting days and is paid at a rate that may not reflect loss of pay.
Dale said: “We need to widen the scope of who is entitled to SSP to take into account the many different ways that people are engaged in work, including in the gig economy.
“We also need to improve SSP so that it more adequately reflects wages and remove the lower earnings limit. The rate at which you qualify is £123 so some insecure workers working part time therefore might not qualify at all.
“We could also remove the three day waiting period, helping people to maintain an income when suffering from short term illnesses – but the kinds that are easily and quickly spread.”
Bajorek said there needs to be a broader shift towards more secure work.
She said: “Going forward it is imperative that everyone has access to good quality work.
“This includes knowing their working rights, two-way flexibility in terms of contracting and notification of shift patterns and compensation for cancelled shifts to reduce financial stressors and burnout.”
Bajorek said employers have a duty to respect their employees' rights.
“Employers should be doing all they can to implement healthy and safe work conditions, and also include wellbeing into this agenda.”