Family life is under pressure as never before, as a result of the austerity measures being brought in by the government.
First there was the news that there are more than one million people on zero hours contracts.
Zero hour contracts do not guarantee workers employment but they have to be effectively on call the whole time for whatever work may become available. These contracts do not include other benefits like holiday allocations or sick pay.
Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) was quick to highlight the damage that these contracts could do to family life.
“For families already struggling week by week to balance a budget, meet rent payments, pay food and utility bills and cover other basic outgoings, the insecurity of zero-hour contracts can result in significant hardship. Often individuals will not know their working hours in advance and can be sent home at short notice. Such arrangements can be hugely disruptive for families and upset childcare arrangements as well as making financial planning extremely difficult,” said Helen O’Brien, chief executive of CSAN. “Employers have a moral duty to pay just wages and provide fair terms and conditions.”
The zero hour contract is particularly prevalent in care work, with an estimated 370,000 such contacts in the sector. There is no security of employment, with the worker on call the whole time. I witnessed these contracts in action with my own mother.
The care workers generally did an excellent job in caring for her but it was possible to see the strain being put on the individuals concerned by the contracts. Staggering in some nights after 18 plus calls in a day. Then there would be the other days where they had three one hour calls, then a gap of two or three hours in the middle of the day before resuming later in the afternoon running into the evening and night.
Many of the people doing this work have families. As a result of the unpredictable hours it was a constant juggling act to try to make work fit around the need to pick up children and look after them.
The workers concerned were totally powerless, they had to take what they were given. The suggestion that they needed a trade union was usually met with a wry smile of agreement but such a move was unlikely to be greeted by the employer.
A quarter of organisations with 250 or more employees used zero hours contracts compared to 11% of smaller organisations with fewer.
Further evidence of the pressure on families came with a report from the Money Advice Service showing growing numbers of people getting themselves into debt.
Some 26million were found to be facing money troubles – nine million more than in 2006 – and 18million routinely run out of cash before payday arrives.
The amount earned per hour has dropped by six per cent in real terms since 2006.
“These findings tally with the experience of many Catholic charities who have reported increased demand for their debt advice services over the past few years. This development is extremely worrying and we have real concerns that families may increasingly be forced to turn to high interest lenders and payday loan companies,” said Mrs O'Brien.
Beyond the world of work, the some of the changes to the benefits system are putting increasing pressure on the family. The imposition of the bedroom tax and cap on benefits of £500 a week for a family mean that many families are being uprooted and moved to other parts of the country. Director of Housing Justice Alison Gelder recently highlighted how the a London borough is seeking to move people it cannot afford to house under the new arrangements out to Leicester, South Wales and Bradford. This type of action will have a devastating effect on family life. Children are taken out of school, the whole family is taken away from support networks. The moves will also not help get people into work – the government’s avowed intention - as care support for children, that may come from relations and friends, will not be available if the family unit is uprooted and moved across the country.
All of these changes are putting an unprecedented pressure on the family unit. The Church has recognised this pressure with Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichol regularly raising the issue. He together with other faith leaders, trade union and enlightened employers have called for the enactment of a living wage across the country. The London living wage was recently set at £8.55 by Mayor Boris Johnson. Outside of the capital the minimum level recommended is £7.45 an hour.
Payment of a living wage would substantially ease the burden being placed on families. It would stop the scrabble of so many to get a lot of low paid work to make ends meet. This in turn allow parents more time with children. It is a price that employers would have to pay for the common good. Our society cannot continue with this race to the bottom approach that repeatedly hits the family unit hardest