The Guardian 14 May 2019
“I’m a bit scatty with things like this,” Gemma* admits when talking about her finances. It was not scattiness that meant she struggled to make ends meet when taking home £399.69 a month for working 18 hours a week as a cashier at Betfred. Even with tax credits and child benefit topping up her meagre wages, it was a constant struggle to pay for the essentials and Gemma fell behind on her bills. She was already receiving letters, phone calls, texts and emails threatening legal action over previous unpaid bills, as well as £400 of benefit overpayments that had to be repaid.
Her son’s birthday was an added pressure but, she says with a weak smile: “I always seem to pull it out of the bag somehow.” Having scraped through the month, she then put whatever she could afford – usually about £20 – towards her debts.
Official data released on Tuesday showed that unemployment remains at its lowest level since the mid-1970s but that means little to the 4 million workers in the UK like Gemma, who are living in poverty.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, appeared to acknowledge the depth of this crisis last week, when he raised the possibility of increasing the minimum wage to 66% of median earnings.
Dave Innes, head of economics at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says a rise in the minimum wage would be good news for low-paid workers but “really will not do that much to tackle the problem of in-work poverty”.
It is the bruising combination of low pay, insecure hours, rising housing costs and cuts to benefits that has driven in-work poverty to its highest point in 20 years.
Innes says: “The labour market is trapping people in poverty, when it should be offering people a route out. It is very demoralising for people who are doing what society expects of them, going out to work to meet the essentials but still unable to do that.”
A 34-year-old single mother with a psychology degree, Gemma desperately wanted to work to build her confidence. She had been turned down by a number of employers who, she says, assumed her son would be her priority.
So she felt upbeat when she was offered the job at Betfred. “They made it sound like they would fit it around me, which they did the first couple of weeks; but then they started being awkward.”
Receiving her rota one week in advance, with shifts that never matched school hours, Gemma then scrambled to stitch together a patchwork of childcare, ringing around different breakfast and after school clubs to find somewhere that could take her son for a few crucial hours.
She was reluctant to lean on her mother, who has mental health problems, and felt guilty asking her aunt but had little choice when shifts finished long after her son’s bedtime.
Then the rota would be changed at the last minute to suit the betting shop, throwing her carefully worked-out plans into disarray. She says: “It was just so confusing. I was so stressed because I didn’t know where I was one week to the next.”
Some staff left young children home alone, just so they could cover their shifts. Gemma was not prepared to do that but says she got nowhere asking for more stable hours. “They didn’t care. I think it’s the wrong kind of industry to work in for understanding.”
Betfred says company policy is for rotas to be sent out two weeks in advance. Staff can request flexible working agreements after 26 weeks of employment.
Competitive pressures across retail and hospitality have driven employers to demand total flexibility from their staff, leading to zero-hours contracts, gig work and many unwilling part-time workers. Innes says this problem of underemployment needs to receive a lot more attention in policy debates.
Gemma enjoyed the social element of her job at Betfred, serving people who came in for their daily entertainment. “But then you do get some people that get angry, smash up the machines. It’s a bit daunting. You get told about all the different fraudsters and you have to watch out for dodgy people. I think they get robbed a lot.”
Working conditions were tough. Other staff worked longer shifts and it was not always easy to take a break.”
Ultimately, Gemma turned down too many shifts and had to quit. She says her overwhelming feeling was one of guilt. “Guilt to your employer and guilt to your child. It’s a constant cycle of guilt that happens when you’re trying to do something.
”Then if you haven’t found a job that’s suitable for hours, you feel guilt because you’re not working and everyone thinks you’re a scrounger. You can’t really win.”
Although Gemma is now out of work, Christians Against Poverty, a debt-counselling charity, is helping her get on top of her finances and she is about to start voluntary work at a community centre.
There are examples of companies trying to tackle the problem of in-work poverty. Pets at Home is offering part-time employees better opportunities for career progression; and EE lets staff choose if they want to work more hours.
It is an uphill struggle. Recent government figures show that the proportion of workers in poverty remains stubbornly high. Innes says: “What this shows is that this biggest problem of our times, as we see it, is not being tackled. In the past, we have seen big falls in pensioner poverty, big falls in child poverty. There are solutions out there to in-work poverty but at the moment they are not being pursued.”
* Not her real name