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.
No examples of typical businesses or names of businesses cited as examples, so how can we believe this?
The majority of hospitality businesses?
I worked for a Holiday Inn franchise which used Zero-hours contracts almost exclusively
I am now in my 70’s and am profoundly saddened at the seemingly global grip such conservative principles have taken. What makes it all the more heinous is that unbelievably it is justified by some. I would think that it is graphically self evident that anyone who is supportive of a zero hours contracts-actually does not need more secure employ. Such opinions then, in my view count for absolutely nothing.
I am one of those dinosaurs.that actually DID do ‘a fair days work for a fair days pay’. Recently I managed to get through (it was grievous to know what was going to happen to this poor kid); the dramatization of a young man, Jerome Rogers, who ultimately took his own life because of this first step of a zero hours contract earning from £18 to £79 PER WEEK,– into a spiraling downward slide of exploitation abuse and bullying by system. He was 20; he wanted to live yet he is dead by his own hand. If ‘system’ had formed an honour guard of nooses, they could not have done better. This was referred to as suicide, not homicide by system abuse.
I am utterly contemptuous of the inertia of the Union movement on this, and am in utter despair that this modern day form of bonded slavery is not daily front page news.
Now 2018 and and no change. I am glad of my winter years; I have no wish to see this get worse.
As usual the real reason for the growth of zero hour contracts, namely the endless supply of cheap and willing EU workers, has been ignored. We had no problems with zero hours contracts in the 80s or 90swhen economic conditions were far worse than today, address the importation of cheap workers and the problem will go away without govt intervention.
A recent experiment revealed most people working on zero hours contracts have very good reasons to do so, like unable of working all shifts available
I’m in accord with your opinion, from the SW coal face of modern neoliberal Britain!
To try and support myself while doing voluntary work and study / research I have had to resort to zero hour contracts and a temp part time contract (which in reading the small print also had zero hour worth).
On one of my lowly paid sojourns I received less than the minimum wage so I went to the local Citizens Advice centre on how to approach the employer, the first thing I was advised – did I want to keep my job, because so many local employers weren’t paying the legal amount I may just get the sack because they could easily pick someone else! Citizens Advice weren’t advising me to not say anything, I was just warned re the prevalence of my predicament; they then advised me to tell the owner of the company that HMRC may check the illegality of my pay.
With the seasonal part time employment which took me a number of weeks and online suitability tests to eventually get an interview (it was an upmarket well-known retail store), I was paid grandly with 20 odd pence above minimum wage, I was given a 14 and a half hour week contract for the Christmas period but after one week I was told to not come in on the next allotted shift because there was a store shortfall in takings and even non temp employees were being asked to take unpaid holiday on the weekends running up to Christmas.
That’s when I realised that my 14 and half hour contract could in the small print have the hour quota changed at any time. Fortunately, I was given a temp position in a busy food hall and the local managers also realised long queues wouldn’t go down well with their customers, so I regained my temp hours and more which meant I could afford some small presents but no Xmas tree – we are such a rich nation.
ED clearly just by the use of the word you may be a politician.But what you are not is a single mum working inthe evening 6pm tp 9pm for 6.10 pence an hour that, has to be topped up by the local job centre to the minimum wage and then out of that pittance find 50 pounds a week for travel expense’s and arrange for someone to look after your children. e a
You are obviously entitled to dislike this form of employment, but it damages your case when the first two paragraphs of this article contain such glaring errors.
There are not 1.8m people on zero hour contracts, there are 1.8m contracts. The office for national statistics is very clear about this, and to fail to note the difference is misleading. The statistics are here: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lmac/contracts-with-no-guaranteed-hours/zero-hour-contracts–2014/index.html
On exclusivity clauses, a cursory google would have revealed that they are already in the process of being abolished – this ommission is also misleading: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/zero-hours-contracts-banning-exclusivity-clauses-final-impact-assessment.
Clearly, uncertain employment is a problem for some workers, and proposals on how this may be improved woudl be welcome, but this blog does not approach the subject in anything approaching a constructive way. I’m afraid it reads like little more than a rant.
Ed: You are well within your right to critique the blog post, and offer your (not so humble) opinion. However, there are two major flaws in your post.
Take your assertion “You are obviously entitled to dislike this form of employment,but it damages….”, you’ve relegated the thought (argument put forward) in the article to a mere like/dislike of the author, then you’ve given us an example of what the government is supposedly doing about it in the form introducing a law banning exclusivity clauses. If you say there is a law banning exclusivity clauses, then it could not have been a case of the author liking/disliking…it’s a law.
The second part where your assertions are off the mark: You point out the distinction between number of contracts/number of people on zero hours contracts, yet give no actual figures on the NUMBER OF PEOPLE ON ZERO HOURS CONTRACTS. you should have shared this with us. Its no good criticizing, without offering a better solution. The former is a actually called criticism because of that, whereas the latter is called critique because it goes over and above (beyond criticism). For anyone curious about the actual number of people of zero hours contracts. See:
By the way the link you included to the government statistics website gives an error. Proper Link (tested and working on 08 May 2016) to the government statistics website figures:
I agree with you article full, the use of zero hour contracts is harming the employees more than stimulating the economy. It seems to be a band aid for the employment statistics, that the government use to empower their slogans.
I am researching zero hour regulations for a close friend when I came across your article. My friend may be among the luckier employees, who has been employed for the last 8 months on a zero hour contract, yet never having less than a 40 hour week. Although comforting that they have been with steady flow of income, the problem with this case is that they cannot move forward in life. Because of their status as a zero hour employee, in a position that is obvious to me, to be a permanent position they harm unable to start on the property lander because they cannot prove future income.
I has search high and large for a regulation to when a zero contract should become a permanent one, to no avail surly there should be one. Sorry to go off topic but my frustration with zero hour contracts has taken hold.