In May last year I applied for a job working at a university with students with learning difficulties on a one-to-one basis. The job description was detailed and the post sounded ideal for me at the time. However: there was no mention in the specifics that this was a zero-hours contract, or that the only guaranteed hours they could offer, should the interview go well, were a minimum of six. I thanked them and didn’t take it any further.
There’s now 903,000 people employed on zero-hour contracts in the UK, according to the latest government statistics, with the figure set to reach the million mark at some point in the next couple of months. Only four years ago, the number was 250,000. At this rate by 2021 there will be two million people on them, given that the Conservatives seem to believe this insecure method of work is contributing to a healthy economy based on job creation; the truth, of course, evades the Tories it always has done, and most of these unstable contracts offer no fixed hours, no guaranteed regular income and a very uncertain future.
The Office of National Statistics says it all: those on zero-hour contracts get less than £7.25 an hour; many are not entitled to sick pay, holidays or redundancy.
It sounds like a right-wing wet dream, and yes, some people do benefit from the flexibility of the zero-hour jobs on offer, but if that’s all that’s on offer, what are you supposed to do? Certainly for employers it’s merely a way of getting labour on the cheap. And the list of employers who offer them is long and growing longer, with many big names on the list, such as MacDonald’s and Sports Direct, and these people aren’t short of a bob or two. So what other motivating factor would they have, other then profit? Zero-hour employees also pay less tax and national insurance than those in regular employment, and this is reflected in derisory take-home pay, often leading to people relying on in-work benefits. This translates into a loss to government coffers of £10m every single day, and therefore doing nothing to plug a hole in the increasingly parlous state of the nation’s finances.
Zero-hour contracts are part of a wider employment trend known as the ‘gig economy’ and includes part-time and temporary workers, and those who have sought self-employment as a means of escaping the dole queues and the threat of insecure work. The latter figure is now at 4.8 million, a 26% rise in a decade.
The TUC’s research suggests that the number of self-employed people who are low-paid has increased by 21% in the last ten years. A former Blair appointee (Matthew Taylor), was given the task in October of getting to the bottom of why job insecurity is so prevalent. Of course the Tories have ignored each and every call to ban zero-hour jobs (of course they have), so perhaps there’s an indication of what promises to be the most widely ignored of all government reports you’ll ever see, and you can almost predict that calls for greater unionisation, worker representation on boards and actual sanctions such as prosecutions for law-breaking employers, will not be heeded. The prime minister has, of course, defended the Tory wet dream economy of low wages and insecure employment, saying: “the UK has one of the strongest labour markets in the world,” by which she obviously means, “an economy that is stacked in favour of rich Tory donors and tax avoiders.”
It’s worth remembering in 2014 that the Tories defined themselves as the ‘workers’ party’, and that this rebrand also came with a defence of zero hour contracts by that most caring of MPs Iain Duncan Smith. Brexit trade deals are rearing their ugly heads again because you can be sure that the government will simply negotiate any deals with workers’ rights coming last in their list of priorities.
Before the Labour government of 1997 improved the lot of the worker, there was no minimum wage; no statutory right to a paid holiday; no legal limit on the number of hours employees can be required to work; no right to a daily rest period; no laws to prevent employers discriminating against disabled workers or those with particular beliefs; no right for employees to take time off work to look after a sick child. In 2013, the then chancellor George Osborne recommended that employees could trade in their rights for shares in their company.
Only a Tory would perceive a workplace right as a commodity to be bought and sold. Some of the above laws, and many others, have their origins in EU legislation. You can be sure that under the Conservatives and their slippery race-to-the-bottom Brexit negotiations, many more employees will be regarded with the same beady, contemptuous stare that zero-hour workers have had to endure for years.
Max Webster is the Editor of Political Provocateur