Shocked by the ‘poverty cycle’, British reformers created a safety net for casual workers. Now precarious working conditions are back, and the welfare state is under attack. By Chris Renwick
Tucked away behind York Minster – the grand cathedral adorned with medieval stained-glass windows that dominates the North Yorkshire city’s skyline – is a cobbled street that has become an informal labour exchange. Each day, just before lunch, couriers dressed in the distinctive mint green and black uniform of Deliveroo, the online food delivery company, arrive at the end of this street, park their bikes and scooters next to a bench, and talk among themselves. Clutching their smartphones, they wait for someone, somewhere in the city, to place an order with one of the nearby restaurants and cafes. When an order comes through, one of the couriers will pick it up and deliver it in exchange for a small fee. They will then return to the bench to wait.
Plenty of people in early 21st-century Britain can identify with the experience of working for a company like Deliveroo. Drivers for the taxi firm Uber, for example, know only too well what it’s like for work to arrive in fits and starts via an app. But even more people are employed on zero-hour contracts in a wide variety of jobs, from stacking shelves to waiting tables to caring for the elderly. According to the Office for National Statistics, around 900,000 workers rely on a job with a zero-hour contract. These people start every week not knowing how much work they will get or how much money they will earn.
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