Wednesday, 14 August 2013


...a million modern serfs.
Zero hours contracts perfectly encapsulate the disgustingly exploitative system we live under.
These are the ultimate in casualised labour, the pinnacle of job insecurity, the worst extremes of the 'race to the bottom' on workers' rights and conditions. All in the name of profit maximization. 
And far from being on the obscure margins of the labour market, zero hours contracts are growing at an unprecedented rate, encouraged by the main employers' organisations and the mainstream pro-capitalist political parties.

Up until recently the Office of National Statistics estimated around 250,000 workers in the UK suffered these contracts; condemnation enough of 21st century capitalist Britain. 
But now a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has put the estimate at over a million - 4 per cent of the entire workforce - and growing astronomically in the last two or three years.

Fully flexible exploitation
Zero hours contracts [ZHCs] give all the flexibility to the employers and all the risk and insecurity to the workers on them. 
It means being contracted to work for a particular employer, but with absolutely no guarantee of how many hours of work you get - if any! - and insistence that the worker is on call, unpaid, ready to work whenever asked to.
Capitalist apologists for this system claim it suits people who want flexibility on the hours they work. That may apply to a tiny handful. But their argument is utter baloney, a cover-up for a system of ruthless exploitation. 

90% of Sports Direct workers on zero hours contract
One of the many High Street outfits using them - Subway - summarizes the reality in the wording of their contracts:
"The company has no duty to provide you with work. Your hours of work are not predetermined and will be notified to you on a weekly basis as soon as is practicable by your store manager. The company has the right to require you to work varied and extended hours from time to time."

And just to further clarify the surrender of rights involved, Subway make it a precondition of being hired that workers waive their rights (under European Working Time Regulations) to have the working week limited to 48 hours.
In other words, you could be dragged in to work over 48 hours one week, but literally no hours the next, and all along you are contracted to Subway, unable to get work with another firm, and only paid for the actual hours worked. And it's all perfectly within the law!

Choose punishment!
Allegedly workers on these contracts have the right to decline offers of work. In reality there's absolutely no such choice. 
Numerous reports give accounts of people being starved of hours after they have said 'No' to a particular shift. And they are frequently left with no work at all for weeks on end, because the employers can use Zero Hours Contracts as a weapon to reward, reprimand or punish people according to their whim - the exploiters' ultimate dream of control. 
As one woman reported, she'd been denied any work as a Home Carer for several weeks after asking for a day off for her child's medical appointment.

Zero rights
And such insecurity over hours and therefore wages are not the only consequences. Zero Hours Contracts also involve zero guarantee of sick pay, holiday pay, or redundancy pay. 
It makes it virtually impossible to plan your life, particularly for workers with childcare responsibilities or other care duties, let alone the impact on family and social life. 

Education is colonised by zero hours contracts
As one Edinburgh care worker explained, "You basically have to take what hours you're given. So on any typical week I might have a Friday off when I'd rather be working, but then have to make up my hours on a Sunday when I want to spend time with the kids."

It makes it a nightmare to meet the bills and budget for daily life - and because there is no fixed, regular weekly wage involved, it makes it almost impossible to negotiate the benefits system, such as Working Tax Credits and childcare allowances. 
And since it's widely accepted a major source of stress at work is lack of control over the job, these contracts are storing up an explosion of mental ill-health.

Low Payers' Paradise
The one million-plus workers subjected to this form of excruciating insecurity are also concentrated in the lowest-paid sectors of employment - and indeed that is one of the aims of these contracts. 
The Tory-LibDem Coalition might try to claim it just blesses workers with infinite flexibility without reducing incomes. On the contrary: according to the recent Resolution Foundation Report, the average weekly pay of those on ZHCs is £236, compared to £482 a week for workers on other contracts. And they get an average of 21hours work a week - compared to 32 hours for the rest. These figure also prove the simple, brutal truth: workers on ZHCs earn drastically lower hourly wages than other workers.

High Street cowboys
These contracts are not confined to the hidden undergrowth of the British economy - nor are they the preserve of unscrupulous backstreet employers or small firms struggling to survive and cutting labour costs. Quite the opposite. 
Big Mac Starvation Wages
The government's own Workplace Employment Relations Survey of late 2011 found that 6 per cent of workplaces with less than 50 workers used them, whereas twice that proportion (11per cent) of workplaces with 50-99 workers did so - and a whopping 23 per cent of workplaces employing 100 or more.
Household names exploit the power to dictate that ZHCs offer them. 
We've already mentioned Subway. Sports Direct has been exposed by protests against them hiring 20,000 of their 23,000 workers under ZHCs. 
Burger King and Dominos Pizzas use them extensively. So do McDonalds - with 90 per cent of their staff (82,000 in the UK) on them. JD Wetherspoons hire 80 per cent of their staff this way. Others include Boots (4,000); Tate Galleries; The National Trust; Buckingham Palace; the Kirk of Scotland's social care wing.

New Labour's slave labour
And Labour councils are up to their necks in this exploitation too: directly in the cases of Brent and Rhondda Cynon Taff, to quote two uncovered so far, and indirectly through work they've contracted out in vast numbers of councils.
That is perfectly predictable from the same party that spent 13 recent years in government doing absolutely nothing to scrap these pernicious contracts, and a hell of a lot driving forward the outsourcing, privatisation and public sector cuts that have driven hundreds of thousands into choosing between zero hours contracts and zero work.
One in four public sector employers use these ZHCs, as do one in three voluntary sector employers.
The areas of greatest concentration include hotels, catering and leisure; education, and healthcare. The health sector alone accounts for 100,000 people on ZHCs! 
And the ruthless Michael O'Leary's Ryanair - the biggest airline in Europe - employs an incredible 75 per cent of its 2,625 pilots on Zero Hours Contracts, as part of a regime of bullying and sackings aimed at gagging these highly skilled workers from raising concerns and criticisms about the frightening breaches of safety in pursuit of skyrocketing profit.

A long trend
Are these forms of employment new? And why are they growing with relentless speed?
The media has just now caught up with their existence, but ZHCs have been increasingly common since the late 1980s, and are indeed part of a much broader, deeper trend towards casualised, insecure work since the mid-1970s. 
But what is new is the sheer scale of their use.

For about 30 years after World War Two, governments - both Labour and Tory - tended to aim at full employment, reluctantly tolerated the strength of the trade unions, and generally thought rising wages and secure employment was good for capitalism. It provided a growing market for their goods amongst millions of workers on better wages than their parents or grandparents - and the power of organised workers' unions won wages as their highest share of total national wealth on record by 1975. 

Clawing back workers' rights
That changed with the first signs of crisis in their profit-based system in the mid-1970s, when UK governments began to claw back the gains working people had won in previous generations so as to boost the flagging rates of profit for the capitalist minority at the time. 
Thatcher's government in particular unleashed civil war against workers' conditions, seeking to smash the ability of trade unions to resist, deploying the weapon of mass unemployment to drive down wages. 
In subsequent years both Tory and Labour governments obeyed the orders of the bankers and capitalists, ripped manufacturing apart, concentrated far more on financial capitalism's interests and low-paid service sector employment. 
Dockers reporting for work -with zero guarantees
Alongside deregulation of work and globalisation of capitalism, this swung the balance of power decisively to the employers, unleashing a reign of terror in workplaces, which accelerated in the wake of the miners' defeat in 1985. 
New Labour governments carried on where the Tories left off in fashioning the conditions for maximum profit at the expense of workers' wages and conditions: neo-liberalism, what Tony Blair boasted was "the least regulated labour market in Europe". 

Robbie Fowler supporting Liverpool Dockers fight against casual Labour
Privatisation was a major driver, for instance fueling local authorities' current hunt for the cheapest bidder through outsourced contracts for the likes of homecare services, where a vast array of private companies bid for the care of as few as one elderly person, cutting costs to win the contract by hiring people on zero hour contracts. 
Privatisation invariably means cuts to workers' terms and conditions, and in recent years has helped create the longest fall in real wages since the 1870s!
The TUC reckon 4 out of every 5 new jobs created since the 2008 banking crisis have been in low wage sectors. 
Since the unelected Westminster Coaltion seized office in 2010, half a million public sector jobs have disappeared. These jobs were 'permanent'. 
The Westminster butchers of jobs claim to have performed a latter-day miracle of Biblical proportions by reducing unemployment in the midst of a recession. But this mirage is explained by the fact that most of the jobs created since 2008 are either agency work, enforced part-time, zero hours contracts, and half of them are temporary. 
The Tories manage to massage the unemployment figures, but workers can't even manage to cope with the rocketing cost of living as they plunge into insecure, low-paid jobs. 

In Scotland, just short of one in ten workers (9.8 per cent) are underemployed. Research shows this is double the rate prior to the 2008 bankers' crisis, and that the workers starved of hours and wages against their will want additional hours that are the equivalent of 50,000 full time jobs. 
This desperate need for more work amongst the precariously employed is mostly because wages have persistently fallen for 41 consecutive months, a relentless decline in wages clashing with mounting inflation; plus some have had their hours cut. 
And that puts paid to the rosy picture peddled by Cameron and Osborne of economic recovery making work available for the vast army of unemployed - whom they demonise and sanction for not getting jobs that don't exist, depriving them of even their miserly benefits, thereby driving desperate people into the clutches of zero hours bosses.

Casualisation: curse of the working class
That is the real context of the galloping growth of Zero Hours Contracts. 
They are not a lifestyle choice for workers who prefer 'flexibility'. They are one major strand to the package of casualised, insecure, low-paid work that is imposed on desperate people, in pursuit of short-term profit boosts to the employers. 
A consciously fashioned device to drive down wages through horrendous and chronic job insecurity, accompanied by a reign of fear in workplaces to keep workers 'in their place'.

The dockers' pen
Back in the mid-1990s, when many of us who were the founders of the SSP were at the heart of building Scottish workers' solidarity (over a sustained period of 3 years) with the 500 locked-out Liverpool dockers, I often wrote and spoke of casualisation being 'the curse of the modern working class'. 
That was a subject especially dear to the hearts of dockers, whose predecessors had fought fearlessly, and with terrible personal sacrifices, to end the casual labour system on the docks. 
A system that meant workers lining up in the dockers' pen of a Monday morning, hoping to be picked by the gaffers for a day's work at a time, praying not to be one of the many slouching home in despair to their starving families because they'd not been given work, maybe because their face didn't fit, they were too outspoken or active in the unions. 
Nowadays, instead of forming up in the pen, workers blessed with zero hours contracts sit by the phone or keep an eye on their emails, hoping to be offered work, never knowing exactly when or if the offer will arrive, nor for how many hours. That is 21st Century casualisation, a modern form of serfdom, where you're tied to an employer who in return offers absolutely no guarantees of work or other entitlements.

Back to Victorian times
The Institute of Directors praise this system as providing 'flexible labour'. 
Bosses' organizations boast it is better to have 20 hours one week and none the next than to be unemployed. 
They all oppose tighter regulation of zero hour contracts - as threatened by Coalition LibDem Minister Vince Cable. 
Vince Cable signals what workers can expect from the coalition
And Cable shares their opposition to an outright ban on these malicious practices, motivated by naked, profiteering greed. 
If ZHCs are so good for the health of the economy, why have any laws whatsoever that limit the 'flexibility' of workers' exploitation? 
Why not repeal the 1874 Factory Act that banned work by children under 10 in factories? Or the 1847 10-hour Act that limited child labour to 10 hours a day? Or the 1841 Mines Act banning kids under 10 from working down pits?

Fight to scrap Zero Hours Contracts
Every minor or major improvement in working class conditions, at work or in communities, had to be fought for in the face of vicious repression from capitalists, their politicians, their media and their state agencies - because under the system of wage-slavery known as capitalism, better wages and conditions eat into profit margins.
We can't rely on Vince Cable, let alone the Westminster millionaires' government, to outlaw exploitation. The trade union movement should launch a massive recruitment drive amongst unorganized workers, demanding the outright banning of all zero hours contracts, fighting instead for secure and permanent jobs for all - including full time jobs for all who want them. 
This should run in tandem with a militant struggle for a decent Living Wage as the guaranteed minimum hourly rate for all over 16.
By fighting to boost the hourly rates of pay, the working week could also be drastically reduced to a maximum of 35 hours across the board, without loss of earnings, ending the crazy contradictions of millions stressed out by working the longest hours in Europe, whilst millions of others suffer the poverty and insecurity of no work at all, or zero hours contracts, or part-time jobs with puny pay.

Independent socialist Scotland
There are vast areas of work that need to be done: in building decent affordable homes, hospitals, state-of-the-art local schools; in green energy and an integrated public transport network; in education with smaller classes to enhance development; in social care for kids, sick people, the disabled and name but some.
But instead of foisting insecure work on a modern 'reserve army of labour' whose rights have been shredded by successive Westminster governments on behalf of the bankers and billionaires they represent, we need to build the crusade for dignity at work, decent and secure jobs, democratic rights at work, and a vast, radical shift in power and wealth from the capitalist profit-junkies to workers' wages and public services.
There is no prospect of such a vision being pursued by any of the parties contending for office in Westminster. All the more reason to link the struggle against modern serfdom in all its forms - including Zero Hours Contracts - to the call for an independent Scotland where we can build a socialist future that is founded on people, not profit.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant piece of article. Please allow us to publish this in Glasgow International's next edition.
    In solidarity
    Amjad Ayub Mirza


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