News: Over 5 Million Workers in Insecure, Low Paid Work

1.3 Million Key Workers Paid Less Than Real Living Wage and in Insecure Work 

Over five million people were in low paid, insecure work on the eve of the Coronavirus crisis with these numbers liable to rise substantially during a recession, according to new research from the Living Wage Foundation and New Economics Foundation (NEF) published today.  

The research found there were 5.1 million people earning less than the real Living Wage and in forms of insecure employment, such as experiencing volatile pay or uncertain hours. Of the over 5 million workers identified: 

  • 1.3 million were key workers. Two million were parents 

  • By region, Northern Ireland had the highest proportion of low paid, insecure workers, at 19% of the total workforce. Scotland has the lowest, at 13% 

  • The sectors with the largest number of low paid, insecure workers were wholesale, retail, and repair of vehicles (830,000), and health and social work (640,000). 

  • BAME workers and women were disproportionately represented - 18% of BAME[1] workers compared to 15% of white workers, a gap that has stubbornly persisted for 20 years, and 16% of females compared to 15% of males.  


Researchers also found that if employment figures follow the same pattern as seen during the last recession, hundreds of thousands more workers are likely to find themselves in insecure, low paid work.  

During the last economic crisis the number of low paid, insecure jobs only peaked in 2013 at nearly 1.5 million more than in 2008, suggesting many of those returning to work, or entering work for the first time, were in insecure, poorly paid forms of employment.  

The research suggests that while politicians and businesses have rightly focused on retaining jobs during the crisis, it will also be important to ensure that the recovery provides decently paid and secure jobs if we are to build back a fairer society and stronger economy from this crisis.  The Living Wage Foundation has called on employers to commit to provide 'Living Hours' alongside a real Living Wage. The Living Hours programme provides workers with the right to a contract that accurately reflects hours worked, a guaranteed minimum of 16 hours a week, at least 4 weeks' notice of shift patterns, with guaranteed payment if shifts are cancelled within this notice period. 

Katherine Chapman, Director of the Living Wage Foundation, said

"Even before the crisis hit millions of people found themselves trapped in low paid, insecure work and struggling to make ends meet. Many are in roles now recognised as essential for our economy and society to function, like care homes and supermarkets. The last recession saw a substantial rise in insecure, low paid jobs, and there's a danger that insecure work now explodes alongside unemployment. But there's also a real opportunity to build back better from this crisis. That's why we created the Living Hours programme, to provide guaranteed, secure hours for workers alongside a Living Wage. Employers are facing huge challenges at the moment, but those businesses that can commit to provide fair pay and secure hours will be best placed to emerge from this crisis stronger."

Carole, a Care Worker and Unison NW member said: "It's been heartwarming to see how we have been supported by the public during the pandemic and we are grateful for every person who has clapped for carers. But applause is not enough, and we have been underpaid and undervalued for far too long. It's time for the Government to step in and guarantee the real Living Wage for all care workers." 

Christian Jaccarini, Economist at the New Economics Foundation, said: 

"Our analysis shows that the recovery from the last financial crisis was a precarious one. Even though the unemployment rate peaked in 2011 and had fallen to pre-crisis levels in 2015, insecure low-paid work was more common. In fact, insecurity peaked in 2013 and has remained elevated ever since. The furlough scheme has controlled unemployment in the short-term but there is a real threat that it will be used as cover to worsen pay and conditions for workers and drive up insecurity in the coming years. Moreover, with women and ethnic minorities more likely to be in insecure, low-paid work, preventing a rise as we recover from the current crisis needs to be part of any plan that looks to build a better economy, and counter racism and sexism with it."

Sandy MacDonald, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Standard Life Aberdeen Plc, said: "As this research shows, even before the current pandemic far too many families in the UK were feeling the impact on their wellbeing and prospects that comes from low-paid, insecure work. As we build back, we have an opportunity to do things differently. Campaigns like the Living Wage and Living Hours will allow us to show the value we place on all workers by making sure they and their loved ones can count on decent, predictable income and working hours."

Regional breakdown 


Regional NEF.PNG

*NB these figures may not sum to national figures due to the presence of (1) missing responses (2) workplaces classified as being outside of the UK (3) rounding.

Industry breakdown 


NEF industry table.PNG

NB these figures may not sum to national figures due to rounding.



Notes to editors

For all media enquiries please contact John Hood "“ 07507 173649 - or Tom Blin "“ 07706 217589 "“

[1] Including multiple, mixed and 'other' ethnicities.

About the Living Wage

The real Living Wage is the only rate calculated according to what people need to make ends meet. It provides a voluntary benchmark for employers that choose to take a stand, by ensuring their staff earn a wage that meets the costs and pressures they face in their everyday lives.

The UK Living Wage is currently £9.30 per hour. There is a separate London Living Wage rate of £10.75 per hour to reflect the higher costs of transport, childcare and housing in the capital. These figures are calculated annually by the Resolution Foundation and overseen by the Living Wage Commission, based on the best available evidence on living standards in London and the UK.

The Living Wage Foundation is the organisation at the heart of the movement of businesses, organisations and individuals who campaign for the simple idea that a hard day's work deserves a fair day's pay. The Living Wage Foundation receives guidance and advice from the Living Wage Advisory Council. The Foundation is supported by our principal partners: Aviva; Joseph Rowntree Foundation; KPMG; Linklaters; Nationwide; Nestle; Resolution Foundation; Oxfam; Trust for London; People's Health Trust; and Queen Mary University of London. 

Since 2011 the Living Wage movement has delivered a pay rise to over 200,000 people and put over £1 billion extra into the pockets of low paid workers.


Methodology note on 'insecure workers'

The quantitative research was conducted by the New Economics Foundation based on the fourth quarter (October-December) of data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), and on the annual Family Resources Survey (FRS) datasets, for the years 2001 to 2019. The LFS was the primary source, including employee earnings and total numbers of people in employment, while the FRS was used to estimate the income distribution among the self-employed. Due to small sample sizes in some demographic breakdowns, some categories were subsequently aggregated or three-year moving averages were used as appropriate.

The estimates of insecure workers include all people with earnings less than the real Living Wage, and who experience insecurity at work which we define in terms of one four characteristics: (1) people in non-permanent work (casual, seasonal jobs, fixed-term and agency) excluding anyone who said they did not want a permanent job; (2) people who self-report volatile pay and hours including those on zero hours contracts; (3) people who self- report constant pay but volatile hours; (4) self- employed people. Living wage rates were estimated by taking the prevailing rate of the real living wage in 2019 (the most recent year for which data was available) and adjusting this level back through time based on the cost of living (consumer price inflation including housing costs) to estimate its real terms value in previous years.

These categories are not mutually exclusive and offer different insights into the types of low paid, insecure work people are experiencing. However, we do not double-count individuals who fulfil more than one criteria. The analysis seeks to measure forms of low paid work where experiences of insecurity and vulnerability are likely to prevail.

Since much of the findings are based on three-month samples from each year, the extent to which they can be considered representative of a full year is limited by any seasonal variation and biases in the data. Sectors that rely heavily on seasonal work, for example 'Agriculture, hunting and forestry' will likely see a fluctuation in the nature and composition of their workforces across the year. However, the findings provide a reliable sense of change across time given that the given 'season' (Oct-Dec) for enquiry is held constant across years.

Due to the nature of the LFS' sampling, income questions were not asked of unpaid family workers and those on government training schemes. As a result, any workers in these groups have been excluded from our figures.

Methodology note on 'key workers'
When defining 'key workers' in the dataset, we follow the approach of Farquharson, Ch., Rasul, I. and Sibieta, L. (2020). Key workers: key facts and questions. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, and use the same occupational (SOC-based) definitions of 'key workers'.

We define key workers based on their SOC codes, using the government's guidance (as of 20 March 2020) as our guide. Since this is based on our interpretation of government guidance, these figures might change when more specific information about who counts as a key worker is released.

We avoid counting key workers in the "local and national government" and "utilities, communications and financial services" categories, as these are less easily defined in data and the government has signalled that it wants to take a finer approach to defining key workers in these groups (for example, specific occupations necessary for the financial sector to run rather than all bankers).

Data sources

Office for National Statistics, Department for Work and Pensions, Family Resources Survey (2000-01 to 2017-18). Available at:

Office for National Statistics, Quarterly Labour Force Survey (Oct-Dec quarters, 2001 to 2019). Available at:

About Living Hours

The campaign for a real Living Wage has ensured hundreds of thousands of workers are earning a wage they can live on, not just the government minimum. But millions of low paid workers are also struggling to get the hours they need to make ends meet. That's why the Living Wage Foundation has developed a new standard of what good looks like for those employers that can offer 'Living Hours' alongside a real Living Wage.


Living Hours is a new standard that sets out what good looks like. It calls on employers to provide the right to:

  • Decent notice periods for shifts: of at least 4 weeks' notice, with guaranteed payment if shifts are cancelled within this notice period.
  • A right to a contract with living hours: the right to a contract that reflects accurate hours worked, and a guaranteed minimum of 16 hours a week (unless the worker requests otherwise)