MORE than five million people were in low-paid, insecure work on the eve of the coronavirus crisis, with numbers liable to rise substantially during a recession, new research suggests.

A study by the Living Wage Foundation (LWF) and New Economics Foundation (NEF) found that 1.3m of the total were key workers who have been at the forefront of dealing with the pandemic.

Scotland had the lowest proportion of low-paid, insecure workers, at 13%, while Northern Ireland had the highest at 19% of the total workforce, the report said.

It said a total of 5.1m workers were in some form of insecure employment and earned less than the so-called real living wage of £10.75 an hour in London and £9.30 in the rest of the country. The wage is higher than the statutory rates of £8.72 for adults, £8.20 for 21 to 24-year-olds and £6.40 for workers aged 18-20.

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

Black and ethnic minority workers and women were found to be disproportionately represented. The researchers warned that if employment figures follow the same pattern as seen during the last recession, hundreds of thousands more workers are likely to be in insecure, low-paid work.

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.

“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.”

Christian Jaccarini, of the New Economics Foundation, said the recovery from the last financial crisis was precarious, adding: “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.”

John Phillips, acting general secretary of the GMB union, said: “It’s a travesty that millions of the UK’s Covid-19 heroes are struggling to survive on less than a living wage.

“The very people we rely on to keep us alive, keep the economy moving and people fed during this pandemic are some of the worst-paid in the country.

“It’s great we applaud our key workers, but after the applause has ended there are still bills to pay for millions of workers who deserve much better than to be struggling by on the breadline – things have to change.”