Zero hours: insecurity faces the whole working class

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As austerity bites and capitalism shows its teeth in its relentless quest for profit and for ways to offset its crisis onto the working class, the recent revelations of the explosion in so-called zero hour contracts have filled the newspapers and our television screens. Signing up to a zero hours contract is a condition that can mean no wages or little wages at the end of the week. In the hope of gaining some employment many workers wait at the end of a phone for whatever an employer or an agency offers. This uncertainty, the knowledge that perhaps you won’t have a job next week or the week after, is profoundly demoralising for workers and isolates them into individual units competing on the job market. In many cases of the zero hours contract the national minimum wage applies but they are being applied across the board, both in the private and, increasingly, the public sector - social and care workers, in the NHS. Health authorities have introduced zero hours which have also affected professional higher paid staff. The employers or agencies offering these contracts are not obliged to offer sick pay or holiday pay and they can usually be terminated at will. There can be no doubt that there has been an explosion in all kinds of precarious work, including the phenomenal rise in part time and casual work at the minimum wage or lower, as well as zero hours. This is a huge attack on the living conditions of the working class.

Zero hours contracts are clearly one of a number of ways of making jobs more precarious and are greatly advantageous to the bourgeoisie in reducing the cost of labour. So why the huge media publicity? Why has Vince Cable announced a government review (even if Ian Binkley of the Work Foundation has pointed out that this review is totally inadequate)? Why has the Labour Party apologised for not spotting it sooner? Why has Edinburgh University felt ‘shamed’ into agreeing to end its 2,712 zero hours contracts? Reports don’t tell whether the new arrangements will be any better for the workers!

The greater use of zero hours contracts is taking place against a background of falling real wages, high levels of workplace fear of the consequences of redundancy and unfair treatment for a significant minority, and an employment recovery where permanent employee jobs have been in a minority” (http://www.theworkfoundation.com). Apart from the implication that capitalist employment is ‘fair’ for the majority, the Work Foundation report gives a good idea of the wider context of the increase in zero hours contracts. And also the motivation for all this publicity: while politicians hypocritically wax indignant about these contracts, they hope to divert our attention from the overall worsening of conditions for the whole working class. This issue also has the advantage of being one where we can be encouraged to demand the protection of the state through legislation against abuses by private employers, although this is an illusion as the situation of health and care workers shows. Meanwhile Vince Cable can bleat that - “well it’s not ideal, but at least it allows for ‘flexibility’” for employers and workers.

Damn lies and statistics

The official statistics on zero hours are rubbish, as we can see from the ONS (Office of National Statistics) estimate of 250,000 on such contracts which is less than the number affected in the care sector alone. The Work Foundation estimates there are one million, and Unite has now estimated 5.5 million based on a survey of 5,000 of its members. Whatever the true figure zero hours and other precarious and flexible work practices create a vast reserve pool of labour which nominally can appear as employed, allowing Cameron to boast of ‘creating’ thousands of new jobs.

One million or 5.5, the figures for the growth in zero hour contracts are definitely on the up. This has been the case for many years in the fast food industry. The opt out clause when there is criticism of the low pay and work precariousness in this industry is that they are ‘franchised ‘ out and the contracts have nothing to do with the major fast food chains. Even so, McDonald’s have admitted that 90% of their employees, that’s 82,200 staff, are on 2 hour contracts; Burger King (a franchised operator) employs all of its 20,000 workers on zero hour contracts. Likewise Domino Pizza - similarly a franchised operation - has 90% of its 23,000 staff on zero hours.

The rise in zero hours contracts has been particularly marked among care workers, with a majority now on zero hours, with an increase in the proportion of their contracts being zero hours “from 50% in 2008/09 to  60% last year. The government has estimated that there are 307,000 care workers on zero hour contracts, despite estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) that Britain’s zero hour workforce is 250,000 people” (The Guardian: 27.08.13.).

This trend towards zero hours contracts has not just affected ancillary staff and primary care staff, who often work through bank agencies: many health care professionals such as radiologists, psychiatrists, and heart specialists are also being offered zero hour contracts by the Health Trusts.

The education sector has also seen implementation of zero hours:.

“More than half the 145 UK Universities and nearly two thirds of the 275 Further Education Colleges said that they used the contracts, which do not specify working hours and give limited guaranties on conditions” (Guardian: 05.09.13).

Bleats from the Labour Party

The Labour Party is shedding crocodile tears on the iniquities of the zero contracts. Chuka Umunna (the Shadow Business Secretary) has said, “Flexibility works for some, but the danger today is that too often insecurity at work becomes the norm”.  Ground-breaking stuff!  To show its seriousness the Labour Party brought together a conference of employers and unions: “This is why Labour has convened this important summit bringing together representatives of employees and employers to consider what action must be taken. In contrast this Tory led government has refused to have a proper and full consultation on the rise of zero hour contracts or to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves” (Guardian: 20.08.13).

Up until this statement and the occasional bleats from Andy Burnham, the Labour Party has remained extremely quiet on the issue of zero hour contracts. The Labour Party made much about introducing the minimum wage in its election manifesto of 1997 and indeed introduced the Minimum Wage Act of 1998. However, within this act was contained the retention of zero hour contracts. Legally, the Labour government had to retain the right for agencies to impose flexible work contracts. Firms and agencies have exploited this right from the last Labour government and of course the Tory and Lib-Dem government didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth!

The development of the recession and the austerity that has been imposed since the crisis of 2008 has seen a massive use not just of zero hour contracts but of part-time work, of firms and agencies using insecurity and precarious work to the hilt.

The fight back

We can see with the Hovis workers (Premier Foods) in Wigan the beginnings of a fight back. After 400 fellow workers at Hovis in London were given redundancies at the beginnings of this year, the Wigan bakery workers began a series of strikes at the beginning of August.

30 Wigan Hovis workers were given redundancies and management announced that hourly pay was being reduced from £13 per hour to £8.60 an hour and working hours cut, while management brought in agency staff to take up the short fall. In an interview with Socialist Worker (03.09.13) one worker said: “We’re not having it. They always want something from us - pensions, wages, conditions. It’s time to draw a line.”

The Wigan bakery workers have embarked on a series of one-day strikes. Their picketing had been positive, with lorry-drivers and other workers refusing to cross pickets. However, there are inherent dangers in this tactic of rolling strikes (as the last postal workers’ strike demonstrated). The union, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) has demonstrated its ability to negotiate the 400 London redundancies and were quick to demand rolling strikes.

The use of agency staff at the same time as redundancies and other attacks has the potential to cause divisions among the workers to the benefit of the employers and unions. Therefore it is encouraging to read “Agency workers have joined the picket line” in the same Socialist Worker article. 

Other sectors have entered into struggle against the imposition of zero hour contracts. In Liverpool on the 9th of August we saw 400 council workers (street cleaners and road maintenance and ground staff) go on strike against imposed redundancies and new contracts. In London at the beginning of the year we saw London Underground Piccadilly line tube drivers’ strike against planned new contracts.

Workers today face widespread attacks through precarious work, falling real wages, reductions in benefits, reduced health and social care. In order to push these through the bosses and the state use all sorts of tricks to isolate and divide workers as much as possible. What workers need is unity, solidarity and confidence in our ability to fight. 

Melmoth, 7.9.13