Why have we seen a dramatic rise in the inherently exploitative zero-hours contracts? The inane weakness and uselessness of the union movement in the UK cannot be ignored as one of the reasons for this, writes Bart Cammaerts.
Recent figures expose that the number of people in the UK on so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts has risen to a distressing total of 1,800,000 in a very short time. In the past two years the percentage of people in this highly precarious condition has tripled from a bit less than 1 per cent of the total workforce in 2012 to almost 2.5 per cent at the end of 2014. Even more distressing is that a whopping 34 per cent of people on zero hours contracts are young people aged between 16 and 24. Also, proportionally more women than men are on these type of contracts.
A zero-hours contract is basically a post-modern form of slavery. It is employment without any guarantees of work, it is an exploitative contract with lots of responsibilities for the employee (for example exclusivity clauses) and almost none at all for the employer, it takes people out of the unemployment statistics without actually providing them with proper work or a guaranteed income for that matter; zero-hours contracts are in my humble opinion a total disgrace and should be outlawed with immediate effect. As a society we should force employers to provide people with a proper job including all the social protections that come with it or support them in other ways. This is especially pertinent as the data also shows that many of the people on these types of contracts remain in this precarious limbo for many years and not for the short term. For many it is thus not a stepping-stone to a permanent contract as is often claimed by those defending these types of contracts.
Zero-hours contracts are so utterly repulsive that even the Daily Mail published a somewhat scathing article on it. Why then, given this condemnation from both left as well as right wing public opinion, are employers able to get away with this and even worse why have they been allowed to massively increase the number of these kind of contracts in the last couple of years?
The answer to this has to do with a combination of factors in my view. Let me address two of the most important ones. On the one hand, in this country the interests of the more powerful actor are always privileged over and above those of the weaker ones. In this regard, it is clear that the economic and class structures and the inherent inequality of the system has to be protected at all cost; this is basically sacrosanct. Over time this has never really been contested and to be clear when referring to power structures in this country it relates to both the (new) Labour and the Tory establishment. Indeed, let us not forget that while the Labour party denotes this now as ‘Victorian conditions at work’ and pledges to tightly regulate this type of contract, zero-hours contracts rose considerably when they were in power from 1997 to 2010 and they were left unrestricted all that time.
On the other hand, and it saddens me to say this, but the inane weakness and uselessness of the union movement in this country cannot be ignored either when it comes to the reasons why zero-hours contracts have risen so dramatically. Workers on permanent contracts and the unions that represent them are simply not ready to stand up to the employers, to the government and parliament to force them to ban or at least severely restrict these exploitative practices. There is, unfortunately, no solidarity between different kinds of workers, between workers that have work and the ‘workers’ that do not.
Also, workers’ struggles in this country are foremost waged on the micro and sectorial-level but not on the macro-level. Zero-hours contracts are especially rife in companies with more than 250 employees, and thus where unions and those on permanent contracts could potentially make a fist, (50 per cent of businesses with more than 250 employees use zero-hours contracts, compared to 10 per cent of all businesses in total). The unions pick their fights carefully and strategically and while it is certainly true that the unions voice their staunch criticism against this, union resistance against zero hours contracts does not go beyond a rhetorical ‘raising awareness’ stage, but it should. Why? Precisely because zero-hours contracts go to the very core of the unequal nature of the employer/employee relationship as it enables employers to contractually bind people to them without any obligation to actually give them any work or pay them a proper income. We need an economy that works for people not the other way round.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Labour Youth CC BY 2.0
Bart Cammaerts is Associate Professor and Director of PhD Programme in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics.