As my only direct experience of life on a zero hours contract is a brief period some 30 years ago as a manager of front-line staff employed almost exclusively (then and now) on such contracts, I hesitate to take issue with Gareth Fearn’s personally-evidenced analysis yesterday of an issue that rightly, if somewhat belatedly, forced its way onto the political agenda in 2013.
But to my mind the rapid growth in the use and exploitative misuse of zero hours contracts in recent years is just one (admittedly rather nasty) symptom of a more widespread and deadly disease: worker exploitation. And, if a future Labour government is to cure the disease, it will have to do more than palliate some of its symptoms.
For worker exploitation has many symptoms: crushingly low pay, even for workers of companies making billions in profit, and those providing essential public services; short and/or irregular hours, including zero-hours contracts; the absence of any paper contract at all; systemic wage theft (the non-payment of all wages owed); and routine denial of basic rights such as paid holiday, sickness pay, and maternity and paternity rights.
Last week, in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty noted that he “kept running into a type in 2013: the impoverished worker, on wages too low to keep them afloat. University cleaners doing two or three jobs a day, or staff at high street banks forced to turn to payday lenders. [Such] impoverished workers are fast becoming the norm. Employers are getting into the habit of giving their staff poverty pay – and leaving the government to top it up with benefits.”
John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, made much the same point in a scarcely reported speech last November: ¨Something new and terrible is happening to our society. More and more people are living below the breadline. Once upon a time, you couldn’t really be living-in-poverty if you had regular wages. You could find yourself on a low income, yes, but not living in poverty. But that is no longer so. You can be in work and still live in poverty.”
Amid economic meltdown, escalating corporate power and greed, the emasculation of trade unions, and a serious erosion of basic workplace rights and access to justice by the Coalition since 2010, Britain has become badly infected by the disease of worker exploitation. And Labour’s answer to date: an arguably unworkable (or at least ineffective) ban on some forms of zero hours contracts; an increase in the fines imposed on the tiny number of employers successfully prosecuted for non-compliance with the minimum wage (just two since 2010!); and tax breaks for companies that pay the living wage. Does that sound to you like an effective treatment for a killer disease?
No, Britain not only deserves but desperately needs better than that. Labour needs to remember that it is, first and foremost, the party of the workers (which isn’t a rallying call for electoral suicide, by the way: the great majority of voters are workers, not corporate bosses). So, as Owen Jones noted in the Independent this week, instead of “subsidising the poverty wages of the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s to the tune of tens of billions of pounds each year, let’s have a deficit-reducing living wage”. Not one that can be voluntarily complied with in return for some taxpayer handouts, but a statutory minimum wage that is a genuine living wage and which is actively and robustly enforced. Which means many more intelligence and compliance officer boots on the ground, not (just) increased fines for non-compliance.
Let’s restore the legal protection against unfair dismissal, by (i) repealing the provisions of the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013 on no-fault settlement offers; and (ii) reducing the qualifying period to bring a tribunal claim from two years, to six months.
Let’s restore access to the employment tribunal system, by abolishing or at least reducing to a nominal level the Coalition’s outrageous, upfront tribunal fees of up to £1,200, which have (almost literally) decimated the number of tribunal claims since July last year.
And let’s make enforcement of workplace rights genuinely effective by rationalising the remaining state enforcement bodies – the HMRC minimum wage enforcement team, and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority – into a single Fair Employment Agency, empowered and resourced to work closely with local authority inspectors in rooting out the rogues.
Let’s end worker exploitation in 21st century Britain.