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The scandal of zero-hour Britain – and it’s getting worse

low payEver since Tories won power in 2010, many have commented on the parallels between the dire inequalities of the present day and those of Victorian Britain. Never has this observation been as apt as when, this week, it was discovered that part-time employees at Buckingham Palace, along with those at Cineworld and Sports Direct, were on zero-hour contracts.

In Victorian times, workers would have to wait in hope outside the factory gate to see if they were needed to work that day. In 2013, the difference (after all there aren’t that many factories to wait outside of) is that desperate employees check their texts and emails to see what work they will have the following week, or, in some cases, the following day.

A zero-hour contract is, quite simply, where the employee must be available for whatever shifts they are given.  Rotas may be produced on a weekly or monthly basis or, in some cases, a text message will be sent the day before an employee is needed to work.

For the employer, this is often ideal. After all, zero-hour contracts epitomise the labour market flexibility that neo-liberals believe in so wholeheartedly. According to Nick Clegg, it is this flexibility that has prevented Britain from suffering the kind of spike in unemployment that some other developed countries have faced. Statistics would suggest that unemployment is indeed falling: the number of people out of work fell by 57,000 to 2.51 million in the three months leading up to May.

But who is counted in that 2.51 million figure?

Not people on zero-hour contracts, that’s for sure. People who do this type of casual work usually find themselves with a different number of hours each week, not to mention inconsistency of shifts. And, as the name suggests, this number of hours could be as low as zero – for weeks on end.

I know this happens. At the hotel where I work, the amount of shifts my colleagues and I are asked to work varies immensely. If it is busy, we get more hours – and if not, we don’t. For the first four months of this year, I was given a total of three shifts to work. Two of these at the last minute because someone else had called in sick. For some of my work friends, who are totally reliant on shifts at the hotel for shelter and sustenance, getting as little as four hours work a week made for particularly desolate times.

More often than not, zero-hour contracts come hand-in-hand with low wages. The minimum wage, in my case. “There’s no point complaining, though”, as one friend pointed out, “it’s perfectly legal, what they’re doing”. And it’s true. In 2013 Britain, just like in Victorian Britain, it is perfectly legal to class someone as employed – and yet give them no work. Essentially, zero-hour contracts provide a convenient loophole to businesses when it comes to employment law.

Take firing someone. On paper, the same rules apply whether you’re dealing with someone on a zero-hour contract as with any other employee: you must give them notice. The length of this notice, however, can be completely disregarded should they be contracted zero hours. The employer may just stop giving you work from the moment they decide they don’t like you. I’ve seen this happen. I’ve seen rotas where (even on a busy week) a certain individual isn’t given any shifts. Then, it happens the next week… and the next week, and the next week, until one day, their name ceases to be on the rota.

As austerity hits harder, and people get poorer and more vulnerable, these zero-hour contracts are rapidly on the rise. When there is so little work around, people are forced to take these insecure, often poorly paid, jobs. In 2005, just 54,000 people were on zero-hour contracts. Now, in 2015, the Office for National Statistics estimates that this number is now at least 250,000, although politicians and charities have been calling for a review of this – as it could be much higher. (UPDATE, 05/08/13: it has been revealed the number is in excess of one million.) 19% of hotels and restaurants use these precarious contracts, usually with only a small fraction of staff (the management) contracted to work full-time.

Some companies need a level of flexibility, we cannot escape that fact. In the hospitality industry, for instance, hotels and restaurants will be busy sometimes, and quiet others; that’s just the nature of the industry. Nevertheless, this isn’t an excuse to exploit a workforce. People need to plan their lives, plan childcare, and plan how much food they can put on the table.

So how do we escape “zero-hour Britain”?

We should look to the partly-successful Living Wage Campaign. But we should not only celebrate those companies who  pay the Living Wage, but also those who contract working hours to their employees.

It has become fashionable in recent years for businesses to present themselves as ethical: to use fair-trade products, to be “green” and to use locally sourced foods. Or green-washing, as it is often known to us cynics.

The Living Wage is rapidly becoming the new ethical label to acquire, and rightly so. The campaign gives hope to so many on the minimum wage and as such is making a real difference across the country. Surely the next logical step to extend this hope by eliminating these callous zero-hour contracts.

8 Comments

  1. Linda says:

    Not just in Victorian times it was going on until WW2. After that the Country needed a workforce so started (with Labour Gov help and the Unions) began better working conditions and the Country needed these people and the immigration from the West Indies.India and Pakistan etd, now this Gov with the help of thei mates have become ‘broke’ and want us fighting for our jobs and working in ever worse conditions. SHAME ON THEM

  2. pj says:

    What happens when you have no hours? Can you sign on? The job centre have no answer. They say you have to sign off cos you have a job. But what if you have nothing for weeks. Who pays the bills, rent etc?

  3. Rod says:

    Perhaps, before going big on opposing zero hour contracts, Labour should put its own house in order first.

    Newham Borough Council operates zero hours contracts – a council where 60 out of 60 councillors are Labour

    Not a very good advert for Labour’s integrity and probity.

  4. Rod says:

    pj: “But what if you have nothing for weeks.”

    Go to a foodbank?

    Labour’s response was reported on the radio this morning – saying zero hour contracts should be the exception rather than the rule.

    In a recent profile in the FT Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary, expressed enthusiasm for helping people make their first million – much more easily done by employing people on zero hours contracts than by being employed on zero hours contracts.

    Will Labour’s utterly useless Front Bench soft peddle on this issue in the hope achieving ‘business friendly’ credibility?

  5. Andy Newman says:

    It is also worth saying, about those in glass houses throwing stones, that almost all TUC tutors are employed on zero hours contracts.

    This may be a situation that Frances o’Grady inherited, and there may be sound considerations of funding constraints, but …

  6. dw says:

    Having worked casual hours where I was free to accept or turn down work offered (as opposed to on a zero hours contract where people are obliged to accept any work offered), I think there are a couple of other issues to mention. I took casual hours deliberately because it gave me flexibility, as I have children who are at home during school holidays and I could choose to not work if I wanted to; without this job it was almost impossible to find part time hours that provided flexibility. But I agree the zero hours contract sounds unfair as it does hand all power to the employer.

    With casual contracts specifically I think we should bear in mind that some industries just don’t have enough regular work, and their work doesn’t generate enough income, to take on permanent employees. If either casual work is banned, or the Living Wage is enforced, I think you will just see a great many people suddenly out of work as employers will have no option but to reduce the workforce to the bare minimum. Additionally there are many people who do choose a job with casual hours so they can achieve flexible working patterns, for example a working parent or older person who has another household income already but just want a few hours work a week to top up or provide independence. I don’t think casual, or zero hours contracts, are suitable for people who need a dependable income and in that sense we need to question, rightly, those large employers who CAN afford to use permanent employees but don’t just to save money, and also debate the economic situation and what needs to be done to instill small businesses with confidence to invest and grow. As always, nothing is black and white!

  7. Rob the cripple says:

    DW this is not casual hours these are people working full time or so they believe, but being sent home for a week if the going is slow you cannot claim benefits, so you have to pray that you get a phone call casual work in places that work within the tourism trade is fine you know what your getting and when the work ends you can sign on.

    But working in a job you hope will be full time being sent home for two or three days is wrong.

  8. Diane Charlton says:

    If your average zero hours for single person is less than 16 per week you can still sign on for income based jsa. You fill an hours worked form out every week and your wages are taken out of what you would be paid in benefits minus the £5 pocket money you are allowed to keep! If it is a joint jsa income based claim you are allowed to keep £10 disregarded earnings and work up to 34 hours per week (but not exceeding what benefits would pay you in any case). You are still entitled to housing/council tax benefit as you are still signing on. On exceptional weeks of sudden flurries of work you can sign off and then “fast-track” hahaha signing on again when employer has given favourite all the hours instead. In the very least and even though in reality you end up paying your own benefits, as we did, it does look better on your cv that you are employable for any eventual permanent employment. On a footnote my hours have just reduced to 5 per week whilst other zero hours employee has been given 28 hours! You simply do not have any employment rights – take it or leave it!

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