The zero-hours life: Rose Atkinson on hunger, hell and hope in 20 years of precarious work | Zero-hours contracts

In her 33 years on this Earth, Rose Atkinson has had 35 jobs. She has them listed in a black notebook: waitress, chef, barmaid, life model, artist’s assistant, tailor, costumier, care worker. She has waited tables and built Christmas decorations and cared for the dying. Since she was 14, Atkinson has worked. And, in all this time, she has never been paid more than £12 an hour – and that was only once, in her most recent job. Almost all of these jobs were on zero-hours contracts, which means she has had no guaranteed income for close to 20 years.

Zero-hours contracts first made headlines a decade ago, after Guardian reporting, although they have been around longer. “Trying to get out of employment law is about as old as employment law itself,” says Jeremias Adams-Prassl, a law professor at the University of Oxford. It’s estimated that more than 1 million people in the UK are on zero‑hours contracts, with a further 3.6 million in insecure work. (Zero‑hours contracts aren’t a specific category of contract, but rather refer to work that is casual in nature and does not have agreed minimum hours or pay.) “The UK labour market is the most lightly regulated labour market, after the US, in the world,” says Adams-Prassl. He sees many zero-hours contracts as inherently exploitative. “Business is risk,” he says. “What you do with zero-hours contracts is take the entire risk of the business and shift it on to the individual worker.”

Atkinson is an avid diary‑keeper. She has been writing about her life, on and off, since she was seven. When we meet, in a cafe near her home, she stacks the peeling paper notebooks on the table in front of us. They are edged with black-and-gold tape and decorated with images from fashion magazines and old train tickets, gig flyers and photographs. Her diaries recount her dreams, literally and figuratively, and express her frustrations and the mundane details of her life. They also document, with extraordinary detail, what nearly two decades on zero-hours contracts looks like. Her diaries tell us much about the reality of life and work in low‑paid Britain.

“So,” she says, opening the first notebook. “These are the jobs I can remember. Where do I begin?”

Atkinson has bleached hair with a purple tint and more piercings than I can count. She swears like a sailor and dresses like a goth, in black clothes she hand-dyes using bleach and stencils. She is a keen artist and studied fashion atelier and tailoring at university. Meeting for the first time outside her home in Streatham, south London, I know immediately which bedroom is hers: the upstairs window is papered with prints. Inside, the room is crammed with rails of handmade jumpers and dresses. Atkinson can make anything. She even makes her own underwear.

She is one of those people who will talk to anyone, taking time out of her day to help mums on buses, or people who are lost and don’t speak English. “It never ends!” she says by email after one of our meetings. “Now chasing someone round Tooting who’s having an autistic meltdown.” Atkinson is autistic, too, and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is one of the reasons she thinks she has spent nearly two decades on zero-hours contracts.

After her parents separated when she was 10, Atkinson settled with her mother and younger brother in Langport, Somerset. They lived in a two-bedroom council house with a hole in the wall that they had to stuff with newspaper in winter. Her mother managed a veterinary surgery, but finances were tight. “I ran the house at 10 years old, because my mum was working,” she says. “By the time I was doing my GCSEs, I was working seven nights a week, and then Saturday and Sunday daytimes, and that was just to look like a normal kid who could buy clothes and have my school uniform.”

She has always been creative, learning to knit at four by watching her mum do it in front of the TV. “It’s not even a vocation,” she says. “I can’t exist without sewing and knitting and making.”

Atkinson has struggled with her mental health since childhood and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her teens. This, combined with her diagnoses of autism and ADHD and her low-income background, is why she believes she has been trapped in insecure work. She is not alone. According to government statistics, only 29% of autistic people are in employment, the second-lowest proportion for any disability. The National Autistic Society puts the figure for full-time paid work held by autistic adults even lower, at 16%. Data from the thinktank the Work Foundation shows that 38% of autistic workers are in “severely insecure” work, such as zero-hours contracts.

“Autistic people are not just disadvantaged relative to the general population. Even within the disabled population, they are less likely to be in work,” says Dr James Cusack, the chief executive of Autistica, an autism research charity.

As a teenager, Atkinson had the routine jobs teenagers have, in local cafes, pubs and restaurants. In 2009, she was at sixth-form college, studying 3D design, but her mental health took a downward turn and she had to drop out for a year. She resumed her studies at a different college, where she completed a BTec in art.

She got a job in a hotel, where she was paid £4 an hour to wait tables. She didn’t like it and felt bullied by the head chef. “I didn’t bow down to her, so she was worse with me,” Atkinson says. She grew to hate it so much that she left without even picking up her final paycheck.

She started work at a pub. “I walked in there and the landlady said: ‘I keep all the money in the airing cupboard. Here’s the float. You get paid £6 an hour. We have a 24-hour licence.’” She sat behind the bar knitting, reading Wuthering Heights and keeping the pub open for late-night drinkers.

Atkinson has worked many bar jobs
The idea of further pub work fills Atkinson with dread. Photograph: Franco Nadalin/Alamy

In late 2010, 20-year-old Atkinson moved from Langport to Rochester in Kent, to study for a degree at the University for the Creative Arts. Within a week, she started working as a barmaid and cook at a local pub. They paid her £4.45 an hour, below the minimum wage, but she took it because she needed the money. Punters refused to settle their tabs, or sexually harassed her as she went to change barrels or collect glasses. Without an employment contract, Atkinson had no protection. “I have no way of defending myself,” she wrote in her diary. “If I say something to a customer, my job is on the line and my managers will go mad at me.”

One afternoon in late 2011, Atkinson was working in the kitchen when the deep-fat fryer exploded. “It was terrifying,” she says. She can still remember the crackling of the flames as they licked the ceiling. The fire brigade put out the fire and no one was injured. Her bosses refurbished the pub with the insurance money. Atkinson stayed there until 2012, when she had finally had enough.

During this time, Atkinson was a full-time student, or trying to be. What was meant to be a three-year degree took her five years. She struggled to manage her mental health and balance work with the requirements of her course. “The pressure at university was horrible,” she says. She lived first in halls and then with a friend. They subsisted on rice and mushrooms. Atkinson had £20 a month to spend on non-essentials. On 3 June 2011, she wrote in her diary: “We can’t pay our bills at the moment. No internet, no TV. The repo man came because we hadn’t paid the rent.”

After her friend stopped paying the rent, they were evicted. In 2011, Atkinson moved into the spare room of another friend – a regular from the pub. “At first I was a bit like: ‘I am 20 and this guy is 40.’ But he was just wonderful. He is still wonderful.” She worked as a life model for the council’s adult learning centre. The pay was good – £9.57 an hour – but the work was zero-hours and the council sometimes took months to pay her.

She considered dropping out of university, but her landlord wouldn’t hear of it. “I had no money at all,” Atkinson says. “So he let me live there for free. Not only did he let me live there for free, he gave me £3,000 to finish my degree. I’ve never even told my mum that.”

In June 2015, Atkinson graduated with a third-class degree. Her diary from the time expresses her hope for a more prosperous future. She wrote lists of designers she admired, including Elsa Schiaparelli and Freddie Robins, and messages to herself, such as: “I want to be a full-time artist.” She began applying for fashion jobs immediately. But her optimism quickly dissipated as she realised that, without a place to stay in London while completing unpaid internships, or parents who could financially support her as she looked for entry-level roles, her options were limited.

Here, again, Atkinson is no statistical outlier. Analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics, undertaken by researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh, shows that just 7.9% of creative workers have a working-class background – a figure that has halved since the 1970s.

The idea of doing pub work again filled her with dread; to this day, the smell of alcohol makes her feel sick. Desperate not to go back into service industry jobs, Atkinson got by on universal credit. When she visited the jobcentre in Chatham, “I’d come in there crying”.

The fashion industry is notorious for requiring people to undertake unpaid internships to get a foothold. When Atkinson did get opportunities, commuting from Kent took up a large part of her salary. In 2016, she got full-time work as a freelance seamstress. She woke at 5am to get to work in London on time. After about a month, she realised that she was being paid on a piecework basis, meaning she got paid for each item completed. As she had been allowed to do hems only, she wouldn’t be paid for her work. She quit.

She was still living in her friend’s spare room, but she had started paying rent again. She was back on universal credit, which was £317 a month. After her £300-a-month rent, this left her £17 for food and bills.

Atkinson spent her time browsing the job websites Indeed and Adecco and attending meetings at the jobcentre. Some of the hiring practices for the jobs she secured were positively Victorian. There was the rice-packing factory on an industrial estate, which she learned about through Indeed. It was minimum-wage work. “You’d get there at 6am,” she says. “They had a register and you had to hope your name was on it. If your name wasn’t on it, you had to hope someone else hadn’t turned up, so you could get the shift.” For 12 hours, she stacked packets of rice on to pallets. “It was mind-numbing,” she says.

In early 2016, a £7-an-hour job as a seamstress at a factory seemed promising. She sewed hats and caps for schools and sports clubs. The work was fine; easy, even. But the social side of things was impossible, which can be common for people with autism. Her colleagues didn’t like her, she says. Attempts to connect with them, for example by asking about a colleague’s wedding, went badly. Atkinson felt misunderstood and ostracised. During her breaks, she sat on the fire escape and cried. After a few months, she left.

Her autism means “I give people this uncanny valley feeling,” she says. According to research from the National Autistic Society, 48% of in-work autistic people have experienced bullying or harassment. Atkinson believes that she has been repeatedly bullied throughout her career, which Cusack says is common: “It often comes down to breakdowns in communication, or lack of appropriate support … how autistic people perceive and understand things can be different to how non-autistic people manage and feel things. There needs to be support in managing that relationship between both parties.”

Living with autism and poor mental health makes even simple tasks, such as catching a bus to a job interview, fraught and filled with anxiety. In Atkinson’s case, the unreliability of regional buses doesn’t help.

One diary entry, from 5 April 2016, reads: “I had to go to a job interview today.” It was for an admin role. “I bought the wrong bus ticket online and the app didn’t work on my phone. Had to borrow money until the refund came to get this bus. Then I had to go and sign on … First leg of the day over. Next came the wait for the next bus. Bus journey uneventful but there was bad traffic so I was late. Panicked after calling to say I was late. Couldn’t remember where to go so I had to call again and ask for help. Finally found one of the identical unmarked office buildings. Flustered. Hot. On the verge of tears. The recruiter was there with a glass of water and assured me no one minded. Got through the interview. Felt confident, happy, achieved something. Got to bus stop. Waited an hour. Bus driver refuses my ticket. Lose my shit. Even if I get the job, I’ll never be able to get that bus.”

Rose Atkinson, who has worked almost her whole career in zero-hours roles, in her kitchen
Atkinson in her kitchen. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

By now, her wealthier coursemates were establishing careers in fashion, with financial assistance from their parents. Atkinson’s sense of injustice was growing. She was still living as a lodger in Rochester, getting by month to month on universal credit. “I sit in this house every single day not even able to buy a can of soup for lunch,” she wrote. “I live on one meal a day. I’m so depressed and lonely. I can’t even go out and meet or hang out with a friend as I can’t afford travel or a bottle of water.”

Atkinson pauses as she reads. “It’s really interesting to see how horrible it was – and how horrible I became because of it.”

By 2017, the erratic and insecure nature of her work was eroding her fragile mental health further. She struggled to get out of bed and basic self-care became a struggle. Her hair was matted, as she barely brushed it. “Poverty is a fundamental driver of poor mental health,” says Shari McDaid, the head of policy and public affairs for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the Mental Health Foundation. “The evidence on that is very clear.”

In 2022, McDaid reviewed the scientific literature on zero-hours contracts. “Our overriding finding was an association between workers on zero-hours contracts and the likelihood of reporting a mental health difficulty or lower mental wellbeing.” She cites a study of zero‑hours workers in the UK that found that they were 44% more likely to report a mental health condition compared with those with regular contracted hours.

McDaid says there are a number of contributing factors. “One is that people aren’t earning enough,” she says. “Other studies point to the uncertainty around your hours. The unpredictability of it caused distress. And there’s also a question of whether feeling powerless may underpin poor mental health – feeling like you don’t have much of a say in your employment relationship.”

By 2017, Atkinson was unmotivated, unhappy and broke. “I felt absolutely hopeless,” she says. Her partner at the time suggested care work. Atkinson was not thrilled at the prospect. “I grew up on a council estate,” she says. “Only two of us went to university; everyone else became a care worker. That was my big thing. I was like: I’m going to go to university and try to do well. Whatever I do, I’m not going to end up in care work.”

But she did – and it ended up being the first regular contract she’d ever had. In spring 2017, she got a £500-a-week job as a live-in care worker for a couple in Kent. The husband had Alzheimer’s and the wife was restricted to her bed. Atkinson was contracted to work 56 hours a week, but she usually worked closer to 100. She spent her small amount of spare time in her bedroom, listening to podcasts and knitting. She was lonely.

The work pattern was two weeks on, one week off. She was not paid for her week off and she needed somewhere to live during that week, so she rented a house for £660 a month. It belonged to a friend of a friend’s mother, who wanted someone to take care of it while she was away. In her weeks off, Atkinson picked up zero-hours shifts as a night care worker, at £60 each. Travelling across rural Kent by bus added hours of unpaid travel time to her day. Sometimes the agency got the address wrong and she missed her shift, she says. She was not paid for that, either.

In 2018, the man with Alzheimer’s died. Atkinson made his last days comfortable. She arranged for a hospital bed to be delivered to his house and dressed him in his best pyjamas. She was there at the end. It was quick and quiet. A good death.

“Because of my neurodivergence, I work best when everyone else is in crisis,” Atkinson says. “I know what to do. No matter how old your dad is, when he dies, it’s going to be horrible, and your heart is going to be broken and you won’t be able to breathe. And I know exactly what to say to you. I know exactly what to do.”

She worked as a live-in care worker for other clients in Kent until 2019. It was all-consuming and isolating. Sometimes Atkinson had to take prolonged breaks due to her mental health. Because of this, by June 2019, she was £6,000 in debt and paying £110 a month in overdraft fees. She was still living at her friend’s mother’s house, but was in arrears on her rent. In August 2019, she took a job as a care assistant on the dementia wing of a care home. It was a contracted job: 44 hours a week, £8.10 an hour.

At the beginning, she liked it. She watched Poldark and danced to the Rolling Stones with the residents. But it was also hard work. One of the residents had psychosis, as well as dementia, and would smear excrement on the walls and throw her food out the window.

Atkinson was good at her job. She could get an entire floor of residents fed, dressed in their pyjamas and ready for bed on her own. But she began whistleblowing about things she found unacceptable, specifically relating to resident safety. This did not endear her to her managers. “If I see something that’s wrong, I flag it,” she says. “And I continue flagging it until it’s dealt with.”

Residents at a care home enjoy an activities session including dominoes
Atkinson endured long, lonely hours as a live-in care worker. Photograph: Stuart Boulton/Alamy

In 2020, Covid hit. Atkinson fell ill in March. The care home went into lockdown, but she says that her managers failed to add her to the rota and didn’t answer her emails and calls. “I got ghosted from the job,” she claims. She was living alone, with no income. “My people were now dying of Covid,” she says. “Every day, I’m getting a text saying: ‘This person’s died at this care home.’” She cried in the queue for the supermarket. She fell further behind on her rent.

In July 2020, she started work as an activity coordinator at another care home. She had a contract and was paid £9.10 an hour. The same month, she was evicted from her friend’s mother’s house. Atkinson’s mother sold her car to give her the money for the deposit on a one-bedroom, £700-a-month flat near work. It was the only place that had ever felt like her own.

She arranged video calls with residents’ families and did arts and crafts, dance parties, face-painting and manicures. In many ways, the job suited her well, but it didn’t work out. Once again, she felt she was being bullied. She came home every night crying. In October, against her wishes, her doctor took her off her antipsychotic medication. She couldn’t sleep without it, so she ended up in A&E. “I was hallucinating and incredibly ill,” she says now.

Part of the problem is Atkinson’s nature. She works hard, but she won’t perform the meek subservience many low-paid jobs expect. She is proud. If Atkinson feels she isn’t being respected, she reacts badly. This is partly because she is neurodivergent. “I find jobs really hard, even when I’m really good at them, because I don’t have the social skills and everything that goes with it,” she says.

Autistic people are likely to experience stigma and negative stereotyping in the workplace. A YouGov poll in 2019 found that 27% of respondents thought an autistic person would be unlikely to fit in their team, while 31% thought that autistic people required too much support. “These statistics back up the fear and anxiety lots of autistic people have about joining the workplace,” says Jake Runacres of the National Autistic Society.

She handed in her notice in January 2021. “I can’t do anything,” she wrote in her diary. “I can barely pay my bills. Why am I doing this? This is so horrible. I’m an artist. I’m educated.” Without an income, she had to give up her flat. “It was the one place that was mine, that had my name on it,” she says now. “I was safe for the first time ever.”

She moved in with her then boyfriend in London. She was 31. Perhaps now, with a London postcode, she would finally be able to get her career in the creative arts off the ground.

Advocates of zero-hours contracts tend to argue that they offer flexible employment that benefits employees and employers. “But from the evidence we’ve seen, people are on zero-hours contracts because they don’t have another option,” says McDaid. “They aren’t powerful in the labour force. They don’t have the ability to get a better job.”

At 31, with a patchy resume, Atkinson had to take what work was offered to her. In January 2021, she found a job through Indeed. A small fashion brand was looking for someone to source, manufacture and design a bikini collection. She could do the work easily, but they were offering only £150 for 20 hours of work a week, which was below the minimum wage. Atkinson asked for more money. They said no.

In November, she started working at a costumier in west London. The company supplied clothes and props to films and TV shows. It was zero-hours work – she invoiced them for her time, at £10 an hour. She stayed there until January 2022, when she was let go. She was still living with her boyfriend. Their relationship was deteriorating, but she couldn’t leave, because she had no money to put down a deposit on another place.

In May 2022, the relationship broke down. She went to stay with her mother, who now lived in Orkney. “I’m going to stay here until I have news about a job,” she wrote in her diary. “Once I’ve got a contract written and signed I can look for a tenancy. It’s the boredom that’s getting to me. Lets me ruminate and get anxious and cry. I just need to keep applying for jobs and not let the boredom get to me. Apply for jobs every day.”

Shortly after, Atkinson moved into a hostel in Waterloo, central London, and began working as a freelance seamstress for a small fashion brand, again on a zero‑hours contract. In June 2022, she was hospitalised for her mental health. She had gone to hospital complaining of nerve pain, but when she told staff that she was suicidal, they admitted her to a psychiatric unit. It was here that she was told by a doctor that she was not, in fact, bipolar. “He said it’s my autism and ADHD, that’s what’s making you mad.”

Does she think she would be so unwell if she wasn’t poor? “No. Because I could pay for private therapy,” she says. When she got out of hospital, she was placed in a women’s refuge and then by the council in emergency housing.

This is the place in Streatham, where she is living, a year later, when we meet. She has had to leave her accommodation repeatedly in the past month to stay overnight with her new boyfriend, due to safety concerns: another resident has been dealing drugs. She has to sign a register each morning. She has a tiny kitchenette with no facilities to cook a proper meal, so she mostly eats ready meals that she buys from Lidl. She needs permission to stay away for the night. She is not allowed a pet. There are 27,000 people on the social housing list in her borough; the average waiting time for someone in Atkinson’s situation is 8.1 years.

She applied for the personal independence payment, which is an allowance given to people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, but her claim was rejected. She survives on universal credit and housing benefit. After she pays her rent in her emergency housing, which is £736 a month, but covered by housing benefit, she has £715 to live on a month. If she were to take a full-time job for less than about £25,000 a year, she would have less money to live on, as she would lose her housing benefit and have to pay council tax, as well as commuting costs.

“I’m perceived as lazy because I won’t work for nothing,” says Atkinson. “So you’re saying I’m not worth adequate housing. You’re saying I’m not allowed to have a holiday. Or go out.” She struggles with feelings of inadequacy. “You’re told you’re worthless unless you’re producing and working.”

When she gets interviews now, she doesn’t land the job. She thinks she comes across badly. “They say: ‘Tell me about yourself.’ I’m autistic. I don’t even know what that means.” The interview process, says Runacres, is often not set up for neurodivergent people. “It can put them at an instant disadvantage,” he says. “Recruiters often assess people on how they respond to unfamiliar questions with people they’ve never met, often in surroundings with bright lights. That can be stressful for them.”

Atkinson knows that her story is chaotic and confusing. It has been chaotic and confusing for her to live. If there is a theme running through all her jobs, it’s that insecure work and low pay has placed an intolerable strain on her fragile mental health. “All these breakdowns are me burning out,” she says.

Career stories such as Atkinson’s may soon be relics of the past. Labour has committed to banning zero-hour contracts. It’s understood that its plan will require employers to offer workers a contract based on the hours routinely worked over a 12-week reference period. With opinion polls predicting a Labour victory, it seems likely that zero-hour contracts are on their way out.

Atkinson welcomes Labour’s proposals, although her optimism is limited. She points out that she was paid below the minimum wage and undertook unpaid internships even though these were illegal at the time. “It all sounds great,” she says. “My problem is enforcement.”

Despite everything she has been through, Atkinson is happier now than she has ever been: “I’ve been focused on recovery for over a year.” Her new boyfriend is kind and supportive. She has a membership at a local pool – it is the one non-essential purchase she allows herself out of her benefits – and goes swimming almost every day. “I’m not being mentally destroyed by working any more,” she says.

She would love to do a master’s to become an art therapist, but many courses require you to undertake personal private therapy, which she can’t afford. Her ambitions are relatively small. “I’d love a house with a garden that’s big enough so that I can get a cat, and a spare bedroom so I can have a home studio. That’s my dream.” But, at the moment, it feels about as achievable as going to the moon. Atkinson smiles a small, wan smile. “I don’t just want to live,” she says. “I want to thrive. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

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