Over one million people in the UK are employed on ‘zero hour contracts’, Brian Christopher looks at the contracts in a wider context of austerity and unemployment

Zero Hours contract

Figures released recently show something of an increase in retail activity – one indicator of the fortunes of British capitalism. The government likes to seize on such rare snippets of good news as evidence that it is managing the economy and steering us towards “growth” and “recovery”. In reality Britain’s workforce is woefully underemployed. Guardian columnist Larry Elliot even invoked quotations from Marx in opposing this outright exploitation.

We now know that up to a million people are on zero hour contracts – employed on record, but with no guarantee of work or pay. They are very often denied sick pay and holidays. They are unlikely to have other benefits such as a pensions, overtime agreements or TOIL (Time Off in Lieu). Their access to tax credits is reduced. Government figures of these contracts were staggeringly inaccurate – despite that fact that tens of thousands appear to be employed by the government, from the NHS to Buckingham Palace.

It is little wonder therefore, that the pay-day loans companies, whose executives lobby and fund the Tories, are raking in the money.

Zero Hour contracts offer some advantages to workers. In highlighting this serious and widespread issue we have to understand why the bosses have gotten away with this scandal so far. Students, parents, semi-retired and migrant workers might find that zero hour contracts suit their other commitments such as study, childcare and other jobs. In the best cases, workers are compensated for lost conditions through higher remuneration. We are told that these people are the majority of Zero Hours workers but this has been cast into doubt by the research figures.

Who works Zero Hour Contracts?

Far from being dominated by happy, casual employees, employers are stringing along an army of “dial-a-graduate” temps, interns, part-timers and underemployed hopefuls. Communique produced a short survey and distributed it among campaign pages to gather some responses from employees on Zero Hour contracts. It is clear that young people in particular, often over-qualified and under-paid, are being used to absorb excess contract work but being denied regular gainful employment. Highly profitable companies and well-funded government departments are making use of the contracts simply to reduce their “human resource” bill. While some small charities offer zero hour contracts out of necessity, after funding cuts, other multinationals are doing so in pursuit of profit. In extreme cases like Sports Direct, the contracts are being rolled out to all part-timers. This presumably plays a role in ensuring that Sports Direct bosses profited over £200 million. McDonalds also got in on the act – the world’s most successful fast food chain can hardly claim that their operations are subject to unpredictable fluctuation.

These employers exploit a weak labour market, where there are far too many people chasing very few jobs. They have promoted a “take what you get” culture where it is unacceptable to ask for guaranteed work. Whilst flexibility is good for an employee when it is offered, it’s far more likely that employees will be pressured to work at short notice and then left without work or pay for long periods of time.

Having a social life, planning for the future and putting money aside become impossibilities as employers expect people to drop everything and work the next day, or leave workers without an income for weeks on end. Experiences differ across workplaces, with many employees capitalising on the flexibility, but the evidence is that these are “take it or leave it” contracts, not negotiated agreements.

Most worryingly, zero hour contracts allow employers to effectively fire people without notice or reason – simply by reducing their hours to zero. This could be as punishment for perceived underperformance, or just employer convenience. It is a fundamental attack on worker’s rights and a key weapon in the class war being waged by the agents of austerity and the bosses of Britain.

Recent revelations have prompted many to show their anger. It is debatable whether Britain is looking at anything resembling an economic recovery. But, if and when it does come, industry will start to absorb more labour-power and the cost and conditions of that exchange are now being decided. The result of struggles in the present day will determine how beneficial employment is in the future – whether we can force investment in sustainable, well-paid employment, or settle for ‘McJobs’, temporary positions, workfare and zero hours.

Resistance to the casualised labour

Earlier this year CNBC in the US predicted that 2013 would be the year that American employees started to quit en masse. The “common sense” of taking constant attacks on living standards year after year during the recession seemed likely to change as the number of people in work began to grow. Sure enough, a new movement has gathered momentum over the summer, seeing thousands of fast food workers on strike and involved in vibrant demonstrations. These are often the underpaid, unqualified, under-appreciated workers. They are more likely to be immigrants or “high school drop-outs” than other workforces – often these groups are called “unorganisable” and incapable of a fight back. But they see no reason why their work should be organised as “casual” labour when they are full time. And so they have struck, with awesome results.

And the fight back is on in Britain too. So far, the uproar has been confined to petitions and statements in the media and online as well as a few well-attended flash demonstrations in Sports Direct. These direct-action examples are actions of the far-left, but it is easy to see them giving confidence to groups of workers who are ready to fight.

Vince Cable started his interview on Zero Hours yesterday by saying “there are many people for whom it’s a perfectly good arrangement”. This is nonsense. Part time work has always been a feature of employment in modern economies. There is no reason why a contract of irregular hours should be accompanied by practices that dodge sick and holiday pay, pensions or use zero hours as effective dismissal. Every worker wants something of a minimum, otherwise having a job is pointless.

“We were modern slaves, caught in between a technicality of having a job but no income” said one of the respondents to a survey of zero hour workers. A common theme was that the contracts were not free-arranged compromises between worker and boss, but one of many practices used to bully, harass, discipline and weaken the work force. Workers spoke of “anxiety” and “feeling powerless” and this is as valuable to employers as cost savings.

We should be very careful not to let the need for part time work dampen the demands and calls of those forced to “work without work” to get real contracts. One zero hour worker told us told us “everyone in our organisation hated the idea of zero hour contracts”. A contract is not – as the liberal economists would have us believe – an agreement between two equal parties in mutual self-interest. Instead it is the manifest expression of the power struggle that goes on between all workers and all bosses. The pay and conditions you get in your back pocket on the first day of work represent what has been won by successive workers movements over generations – as well as the current power-balance at your workplace and the economy at large.

As such, every challenge to the zero hour contract culture and every success gained in one workplace is a victory that can transform the hopes of other workers fighting their own battle.

A ban on zero hour contracts?

The recession, mass unemployment, falling union membership, austerity and changes in working regulations have allowed employers to tear up the rule book and go on an assault on worker’s rights. Critics now suggest that banning zero hour contracts would kill the flexibility that has allowed Britain’s companies to maintain productivity and competitiveness. But the working class has no interest in this competition. The economy should exist to serve us and our needs, not to get one multinational corporation an advantage over others in their race for exploitation.

A ban on Zero Hour contracts need not tie the hands of workers in gaining flexibility. As we have established that flexibility has and always will be available to them so long as their voice is strong enough for employers to be made to listen. Activists, campaigners and trade unionists need to seize the initiative on this issue and make an example of abusive employers. This will be an important step in building the confidence of a young generation who are largely inexperienced and sceptical of industrial action. This is an opportunity to test the traditional left and the trade unions; can they take up this issue and use it to inflict defeat on the Tories and a victory for our class? One Zero hour worker demanded not a “minimum wage” or a “living wage” but a “citizen’s income”. That’s something we can all get behind.

Brian Christopher is a teacher in London. He has previously worked as a Zero Hour call-centre worker as well as a project manager in an industry dominated by the practice of zero hour contractors and temps. For this article Communiqué has conducted interviews with a number of past and present zero hour workers and managers.

From Communiqué