Single working parents ‘bear financial burden of unsustainable, low-quality employment’

Government must urge employers to offer flexible, secure work to prevent poverty, charity says

Employers must offer better-quality employment opportunities that balance the work and care responsibilities of working single parents, a new report on how zero-hours contracts and unsustainable employment leave single-parent families at risk of poverty has revealed

Charity Gingerbread’s centenary report showed that nearly 68 per cent of single parents in the UK are now in work – a record high for this demographic. But as both the main earners and carers of their families, single parents find it particularly difficult to enter and sustain working lives, driving them to take on insecure and low-paid means of employment to get by. 

The number of single parents working on zero-hours contracts – a particularly insecure form of employment – has increased tenfold since 2007, with more than 40,000 single parents working in this way. 

There has also been a 58 per cent rise in the number of self-employed single parents in the past decade, with nearly 60,000 more single parents in low-paid self-employment compared to 2007.

“The majority of single parents work, but many are still locked out of the secure, flexible employment opportunities they need to provide for their children,” Rosie Ferguson, Gingerbread’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“Low-paid and insecure jobs, as well as the lack of affordable childcare, mean that some single parents struggle to put food on the table for their children.” 

Figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2017 revealed that single parents were more likely than the average employee to be trapped in low-paid work. 

Similarly, a study published last week by the University of Kent School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research found that insecure workers were far less likely to experience family-friendly benefits than their full-time counterparts. 

Of the 1.7 million single-parent families in the UK, a third of children with a working single parent live in poverty, with 63 per cent of children in single-parent families anticipated to be living in poverty by 2021. Around one in 10 single working parents surveyed by the charity had taken ‘last resort steps’ to get by financially, such as using payday lenders, ‘doorstep’ lenders and food banks.

Launching the report, Gingerbread urged the government to take action on providing routes out of poverty for single working parents, stating: “A job alone is clearly not enough – something that is not acknowledged in the government’s insistent focus on moving people into work.” 

The charity has called on the government to provide targeted support for single parents in an effort to overcome the poverty barriers. These include providing convenient, reliable and affordable childcare for single working parents, and suspending job-seeking conditions for single parents with children aged under four years, to avoid driving them into unsustainable forms of work.

“We know from the single parents who ask for our help that many zero-hours contracts simply don’t work for arranging childcare. Short notice changes to work patterns can create huge obstacles for families,” Mubeen Bhutta, head of policy at Working Families, told People Management

“We need to ensure that all the types of flexibility in our labour market – including zero-hours contracts – are genuine, two-way arrangements that meet the needs of both employers and the people carrying out these arrangements. An excellent place to start would be employers thinking through how to best design flexible jobs from the outset.”

Gingerbread has urged employers to embed family-friendly practices into their organisations, and to improve the quality of the labour market for single parents, including increasing the availability of high-quality part-time jobs and flexible working opportunities. 

“The government must work with Jobcentres, employers and childcare providers to ensure that work genuinely provides a route out of poverty,” Ferguson said. “We need to strengthen the system of support for single parents to provide a decent standard of living for them and their children.”

The government announced a series of proposals in response to the Taylor review of modern working practices this month, including the right to a payslip for all workers, covering those on casual and zero-hours contracts, and greater financial securities for workers on ‘flexible’ contracts. 

Although the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it had acted on “all but one of Matthew Taylor’s 53 recommendations”, before taking any action to improve workers’ rights, it will consult further with businesses on plans to enforce employment rights and agency workers’ rules, raise transparency in the labour market and consider employment status. 

Parliament yesterday (21 February) agreed to the preparation of a bill extending shared parental leave to self-employed and freelance workers, in an effort to increase the uptake of the benefit and support self-employed mothers in the early months of parenthood.