Zero-hour contracts, long a scandalously under-debated issue, are finally puncturing the media consciousness. The revelation that 90% of Sports Direct staff are consigned to such non-contracts has exposed just how widespread their use has become.1 If the Labour party wants any hope of remaining deserving of its name, it must commit to the outlawing of zero-hour contracts.
In the last year, the number of people “employed” on zero-hour contracts has risen 25%, and since 2005, by 150% (FT, £). Nearly a quarter of UK major companies use them to some extent. Being on a zero-hour contract effectively means the worker can never be sure of how many hours – if any – they will be offered each week. Your “employer” has no obligation to ensure you work. Yet you are obliged to ensure you are available for a certain amount of time, just in case. This makes holding down a second job or claiming benefits accurately to make up the short fall incredibly difficult. The worker and employer are no longer mutually obligated to each other, rather the company benefits while the worker’s life becomes precarious.
A zero-hour existence is horrid. I spent 13 months working on a zero-hour contract. You get no sick pay. You get no redundancy pay. You cannot budget, because you do not know how much you will earn. It is nearly impossible to unionise. If you are unhappy about anything related to your workplace, you become scared of mentioning it lest you are denied work the following week. Once a week, every week, you hold your breath on the phone when you find out if you’re earning a wage. I know people who have forked out for the commute only to be turned home. I know people who simply received a P45 in the post without comment.
Zero-hour contracts make people’s lives insecure so that companies can treat human beings like disposable objects. In so doing, they empower the employer to strip away all kinds of hard-won employment rights. Some say it is necessary evil for creating jobs. Yet this is a symptom of mistaking employment as such, rather than dignified employment, as the ideal goal.
The scandal of mass unemployment has made even Labour talk as if any job created, no matter the conditions, is a blessing. It is this same mistake that is behind the government’s workfare schemes, the repugnant idea that cutting the minimum wage is economically desirable, and Labour’s support for the public pay freeze. Yet what should matter is that we promote dignity in (and out of) work. Making the right call on zero-hour contracts could be the start of a new policy programme centred on the moral precept of a dignified working life. Such a project would understand that self-respect is conditional on institutionalised expressions of respect from others (see Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, London: Polity Press, 1995), and would extend to the statutory enforcement of the living wage and a ban on unpaid internships.
But let’s start with combating the strongest argument for zero-hour contracts. They are often defended on the grounds that they allow supposed ‘flexibility’ to workers. Flexibility is one thing – not being sure you’ll be able to pay your rent is another. In theory, the worker can turn down hours if they are inconvenient without repercussions. Yet those who don’t comply are often not asked again. If a Labour government banned zero-hour contracts, you could still contract an employee for a small number of hours and then agree on more depending on the situation. Genuine flexibility would still be possible. But at least then the worker can rely on a certain agreed amount of income. At least then there is some element of reciprocity restored to the employer-employee relationship.
Zero-hour contracts are undignified no matter what your occupation. And it’s symptomatic of the faulty norms that sustain our economic structure that the lowest paid, least valued individuals get shafted with poor working conditions. However, it is also indicative of the direction our society is taking that zero-hour contracts have been expanded to health care professionals, policing support, journalists and so on. There are probably far more people employed in this manner than we realise.
Andy Burnham showed a rare flash of insight when he suggested earlier this year that Labour should commit to ending the almost-Victorian practice of zero-hour contracts. Labour as a whole must realise this. Trade Unions and campaign groups such as 38 Degrees are a step ahead of us, and we must now lend them our voice. We can hardly rely on Clegg-Cable’s feigning of a moral conscience to come to fruition.