Skip to main content

How to make jobs work and reverse the injustice of working in poverty

For the last 18 months, JRF has been collaborating with people who’ve experienced poor-quality jobs to bring together expertise and co-design solutions to make jobs work. Here four members of the co-design team share their experiences and explain what would improve the quality of jobs.

Written by:
Paul Brook
Date published:
Reading time:
9 minutes

Work should be a reliable route out of poverty, but for too many people it isn’t. Our job should be something we can be proud of – something where we truly get out what we put in, and that can provide the security, stability and flexibility we all need.

Instead, people in insecure, poor-quality, low-paid work are often treated like commodities rather than humans. Hazel, Hugh, James and Tracey, who are members of the co-design team, are among the many UK workers constantly fighting to keep their heads above water. Their experiences have shown what needs to change if we are to reverse the injustice of working in poverty.

As a starting point, we’re calling on the Government to urgently bring forward the Employment Bill, which it has already committed to, and use it to:

  • introduce new rights to more secure work
  • introduce the right to flexible working from day one of employment
  • keep its promise to establish a well-resourced single enforcement body to offer workers greater protection.

As Hugh says: "Boris Johnson said that if it’s a binary choice between putting more into welfare or more into creating better jobs he’ll always choose putting more into better-quality jobs. It doesn’t have to be an ‘either, or’ – why pit one against the other? – but if it’s jobs, the Employment Bill is an essential step towards realising this, and putting it into legislation is key. If properly enforced, it has the potential to make changes to how things are done. We need to make sure HR departments are more aware of the changes that need to be made.”

What else would improve the quality of jobs?

The most important thing is helping employees to feel invested in the workplace and have a sense of shared purpose. One of my bosses really cared about our circumstances outside of work. It struck me how important that is. It’s almost beyond treating people with dignity and respect – it’s about recognising them for who they are.


There needs to be a contract offering a minimum number of hours. If the employee is happy to take on more, then fair enough, but there needs to be a required minimum number of hours worked, so employees are guaranteed to be paid at least this amount. It needs to be suitable for both employer and employee, and maintained. This would allow the employee to budget effectively and not get drawn into debt.


Flexible working hours – a job that's flexible around life, especially if you have a family. It would allow you to take time to pick up the kids. Employers need to look after people. Richard Branson said it: look after your staff and they look after you. You need management that listen to you and understand what you're going through, that don't talk down at you. It’s about being respected.


Wherever you work, you need to be valued as a person not just an employee. When I’ve stayed in a job for longer it’s because I’ve felt valued, part of the team, appreciated, that when I say things people will listen and take it on board – not necessarily always do it but at least listen and take it on board. Obviously also the pay needs to be good so you can pay the bills. If a job pays well that also shows the worth of the employee.


The solutions the team has highlighted have come from their own experience, combined with wider research. Here they talk about some of their experiences of working in poor-quality jobs and the impact that’s had on them.

“Shifts could change on the day, with no prior warning”

Hazel, 40, lives in a rural village in Fife.

“I’m in a relationship now, but for many years I was a single mum with two young sons, working and trying to stay afloat on minimum wage and zero-hour contracts,” she says.

“My work was mainly in care; home care mostly. Where it was usually zero-hour contracts and no exact shift pattern, shifts could change on the day, with no prior warning. I was often phoned and asked to pick up extra clients or told I was not needed at some clients, and this would change my wage for that day, that week.

“This led to insecurity and uncertainty in the job, which led to stress and anxiety. It was exceedingly difficult to plan and arrange things, such as appointments around my work.

“I felt due to the nature of the work and the relationships built between employees and the clients we worked with, it was difficult to say no when we were asked to cover extras. It was either we did the extras or the clients went without care.

“I loved my job and would have continued to work in this field, but the zero-hour contract and the uncertainty of hours worked made life so difficult, I struggled to stay afloat. I never knew how much wages to expect at the end of the month. I ended up getting into debt, which added to the stress and anxiety, which resulted in me quitting the job.”

“I was in pain and tired all the time”

James, 47, lives in Bradford. He’s married and has three children. James is completing a course while volunteering for Bradford City Football Club, getting the stadium ready for the new season. He hopes he might get a paid part-time job there when the season starts.

“I’ve got plenty of work experience,” he says. “I’ve done driving jobs before, delivering things... It’s hard to get a job where you’re well paid.

“I worked as a warehouse operative for a major retail company. The way we were treated, we were just a number. It was depressing. I was lifting heavy objects seven hours a day, and it was in the middle of the summer. I had to leave because of bad health. I had problems with my shoulders in agony, aching, couldn't move, couldn't sleep... I was in pain and tired all the time. The doctor said ‘If I were you I would find another job’.

“Trying to fit things around kids at school is difficult. I’d do the night shift, get home at 6.30am, have a nap then take the kids to school. My anxiety levels were really high, trying to fit everything in, especially when I had no car. You’d need two buses to get to work, two buses back. There’s only one bus an hour. I had to walk sometimes. It was taking me an hour and a half to get there and it’s only ten minutes in the car. The pay wasn’t enough to cover costs.

“I worked at the food bank for a while, volunteering three days a week. The best jobs are ones that aren't paid - the way you're looked after, you're appreciated because you're putting effort in. They keep you informed, and if you're running short and you've not got paid, they'll sort you out with food. They treat you completely different: 'If you need something let us know. If you need time off you can have it.’”

“It was soul-destroying"

Hugh, 42, lives near Solihull, and has done a lot of work through agencies.

“Ninety-nine per cent of all agency work was really poor quality,” he says.

“The worst job I had was for an insurance company that paid a company to clean smoke damage from buildings. We’d be scrubbing black walls and it didn’t make any difference. They were still black but we had to do it anyway – it was soul-destroying.

“Agency work was also really stressful. You had to be ready to receive a call at 6am in the morning – you didn’t know where you were going to have to go or when. Every day you’d have to walk into a new place not knowing what you were going to do or who the people were. The worst thing about being agency staff was that you were lowest in the pecking order so you’d get all the worst jobs. You’d get treated the worst.

“I worked for some time in the food industry, in a warehouse initially before progressing. Despite having little interest in what we did as a company, there were good things about that job. I was given freedom and felt trusted and valued. The result of that was I wanted to do more and I was invested in the company and the people I worked with. It being a small company, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about how businesses are run. It was well-paid and we worked sensible hours. Time was given freely to all employees if we needed to go to appointments at short notice, for example."

“I ended up being at risk of losing my house”

Tracey, 44, is divorced and has two grown-up sons. She lives in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.

She’s done ‘umpteen’ jobs, including many childcare roles, and never has just one job at any one time.

“At the moment, I’ve got an event hire company that I’m director of, and a community café that I set up,” she says. “I’ve also set up a sensory play hub for children, I’m also a relaxation coach for children including doing childcare and babysitting, and I’m a PA for an adult with additional needs.

Tracey’s enjoyed most of her jobs, but has had many bad experiences.

“Being a nanny, you’re kind of self-employed. I didn’t really have contracts in place. On one occasion, the family said to me ‘We’ll be going away for a couple of weeks’ – so that’s £600 I’m not getting while they’re away, but I’ll try to cope. But then I found out they were taking the children away for the whole seven weeks, so that financially crippled me. I had to go and sign on. That really affected my mortgage payments as I couldn’t get any support, and I ended up being at risk of losing my house. Then at the end of the holidays, they said they didn’t need to keep me on as a nanny at all. If I’d known that at the start of the holidays I could have looked for a new job sooner.

“I’d been working at the local hospital for around three years, and was going through a difficult time personally and was off sick. Someone had seen me on a bus with a suitcase, and the person who spotted me thought I was going on holiday and reported me to the bosses. What they didn’t realise was that I was leaving my husband and was literally moving out. But I was put under pressure to go back to work and in the end I did go back. The sad thing is it was like being at school – there were bullies, gossips. That never got resolved. There was definitely no emotional support.”

Music producer in a music studio sat on a chair.

This idea is part of the work topic.

Find out more about our work in this area.

Discover more about work