Forty-four-year-old Catherine, a retail assistant from Stoke-on-Trent, works for a big UK high street brand and has been trying, in vain, to land a full-time contract at her company and elsewhere.
“Full-time work would be absolutely brilliant,” she says. “I could pay my bills without having to rely on universal credit. But I’m on a 14-hours contract, and most of my colleagues are on between eight and 15 hours. Many have two jobs, and quite a lot of my team get no pension contributions, as they don’t make enough.
“I’ve been here for a year, and have asked for more hours,” Catherine says. “I was told I can get as much overtime as I like, when shifts are available in other branches. There are always shifts available, and so I spend on average three hours a day travelling by bus to other shops in neighbouring towns.
“The shifts are usually four to six hours long, so to get enough hours I regularly work seven days in a row with then one day off. Sometimes I work nine days in a row.”
By travelling around to pick up shifts, Catherine says she manages to work on average 35 hours a week, more than double her contracted hours.
“The hours are there, it’s unbelievable that you need to volunteer for them and do 12 to 14-hour days to get to a reasonable number of hours. I feel like I’m never home, my teenager has to look after himself and make all his own evening meals.”
Catherine is among scores of UK workers who got in touch with the Guardian to share that they are affected by a phenomenon called underemployment, which means they feel underutilised as they have been unable to secure as much work or the type of work they would like.
Most of those who responded to an online callout said they were on zero-hours contracts and struggled to get enough work, including in sectors that are deemed to suffer from staff shortages such as retail, hospitality, and health and social care.
A new three-year study by a research team from four UK universities has described underemployment as “an increasingly concerning feature of the UK labour market”, with the first findings published last month showing that “women, younger workers, workers with lower qualification levels and those from ethnic minorities are most affected by underemployment”.
While the supply of workers has been rising rapidly as more people have been looking for jobs in order to cope with the cost of living, demand for labour has weakened in recent months: between September and November, the number of job vacancies continued to fall, declining by 45,000 to 949,000.
Lizzy, an intensive care nurse from London, who used to work a full-time week for various nursing agencies, said she is now struggling to pay her bills as she is being offered far fewer shifts than previously.
“It has been difficult getting the hours I need to survive,” she said. “I constantly experience shift cancellations from all agencies. I currently struggle to get two a week.”
One 25-year-old university graduate from Teesside, who wanted to stay anonymous, said he has been working for a big supermarket chain for years in the absence of graduate job opportunities, but could not get a contract for more than 16 hours a week.
“The company is averse to giving anybody more contracted hours,” he said. “They’d rather have more bodies in on small contracts. There are times when I can get lots of overtime, but also times when it completely dries up.”
For Marek, a Polish national living in West Yorkshire, underemployment of his time and his skill feel all but inescapable. He has been working for an agency contracted by Royal Mail, as a mail sorter, in a distribution centre for more than five years.
“We are on zero-hours contracts, and are only guaranteed shifts that are a minimum of four hours long,” he says.
“You never know how many shifts you get, as shifts are allocated at often very short notice, so I can’t plan my daily activities properly.
“Working a full eight-hour shift is rare. The night shift starts at 10pm, and if it lasts only four hours, workers get stuck in the middle of the night and need to wait at the canteen for hours until the first bus takes them back.”
In his experience, Marek says, working conditions for agency staff are harsher than for permanently employed workers, a practice that he says enables his employer to cut costs.
“We only get statutory sick pay, but there is also much more pressure on us for the work to be done as soon as possible, so that our shift can be shortened.
“It is frustrating when you find out that you work harder and in return you finish earlier and get less pay. I often only have about 20 hours a week.”
Concerns about the reluctance of employers to give more people permanent, full-time staff contracts were also raised by Claire*, from London, who works as a personal assistant for a big finance firm in the City, on a temporary contract.
“[My employer] is increasingly making use of temps to save on overheads, which destabilises the workforce and decreases morale,” she said. “The regular PAs get more stressed, which makes the temps’ lives harder too. The number of bookings [for shifts] you get is very unstable.
“Many temps want to be on permanent contracts, but the firm knows they can save money doing it like this.”
This type of work, Claire added, was in her experience often leaving particularly women and the lowest earners in precarious positions. “This model is not sustainable for anyone with caring responsibilities. You burn out, and then they throw you aside. It’s brutal.”
Some workers affected by the scarcity of full-time work matching their skill set concluded that a working week of cobbled-together shifts in different places may simply not be worth their while.
“I have a master’s degree, and multiple years of experience in customer service,” said Susie, who is in her mid-twenties and works in the capital’s art sector.
“Until recently I had three jobs and still not enough hours. I worked in a school two days a week and had two further zero-hours contracts but would still find myself working just three- or four-day weeks at times.
“Two of my employers have many more staff than shifts available and almost none of my colleagues have one job. It isn’t worth the travel costs for many of them to work three- or four-hour shifts. I don’t think this piecemeal way of working is working for people.”
* Name has been changed