At long last, the exploitative nature of zero hours contracts is out in the open. But although they have become widely discussed by politicians and the news media, I am not sure that either side of the political divide has quite grasped what they really mean to workers.
Those on the political right are obviously happy with anything that increases ‘flexibility’ (read: exploitation) and reduces costs (read: wages) for business, and the zero hour contract fits neatly into the middle aged mythology of a time when owning a bicycle was essential to finding employment – a taste of which should be doled out to every lazy feckless sod like me.
Thankfully, there has been criticism from the left. But most of this seems to be focused around irregularity of hours; an employee is unsure from week to week what hours they will be working and therefore has little financial security. Whatever work they have done in busy periods is not rewarded by a commitment from their employer to guarantee pay in slack periods.
Whilst this is a legitimate problem, it is not the central one. You can get decent hours on these terms, and those that don’t tend to move on to another job if their employer doesn’t show them loyalty. This is not always the case with more seasonal business, however by and large you are aware of this when you enter into the particular industry and can plan accordingly. Further, making this the central criticism allows proponents to counter on the basis that some people (e.g. students) are happy with this flexibility.
Instead, the problem that is relevant the lives of 100 per cent of all zero hour workers is that these contracts exist to circumvent their employment rights. This might be cutting corners on health and safety or brazen exploitation. It recreates the labour exchanges of the past century, when workers were told: ‘If you don’t do exactly as you are asked in the conditions we define, you’re fired’.
Or rather, you don’t lose your job, you just won’t be paid. I have direct experience working on a zero hours contract, and I’ve found that if you complain about your treatment, if you argue against working for ten hours straight without a break or threaten to leave when forced to work in rising sewage water in a restaurant prep kitchen, you will not get paid. If your boss takes a mild dislike to you, or you question your random pay cut that brings you back down to minimum wage – you don’t get paid because you are not put on the rota or are given paltry hours which you cannot survive on.
I should say now that all of the above is regardless of your performance. You can be highly productive, contribute your years of experience and vast amounts of energy to an employer and still be treated thus. The contracts make workers disposable, forcing them to constantly compete with colleagues to gain a standard of treatment which a properly contracted worker can take for granted.
There is no tribunal or recourse to action on the zero hours contract regardless of longevity of employment and contribution. You simply get no hours the following week, and yet you cannot take them to a tribunal because they don’t have to sack you! In some ways, it is a legal masterpiece.
Some employers will give zero hours contracts and respect their workers rights, but they are primarily used by those in the most exploitative industries to make employees very aware of how little power they have. It might be worth bearing this in mind during a Tripadvisor rant at the sullen staff at a local restaurant.
This kind of exploitation took years to destroy, and a decade to recreate. It benefits only the capitalist, who has the passive and disposable workforce they always crave, and impoverishes the worker and those who happily consume from business that choose to operate under this archaic attitudes.
A Labour government should make it a priority to end zero hours contracts in the next parliament, and as consumers we should question whether to support businesses that employ people on these terms.