Adel and Wharfedale Branch member Megan Davies recently posted the article below on Left Futures.
We thought you might want to read it.

Ever since Tories won power in 2010, many have commented on the parallels between the dire inequalities of the present day and those of Victorian Britain. Never has this observation been as apt as when, this week, it was discovered that part-time employees at Buckingham Palace, along with those at Cineworld and Sports Direct, were on zero-hour contracts.low-pay-300x185

In Victorian times, workers would have to wait in hope outside the factory gate to see if they were needed to work that day. In 2013, the difference (after all there aren’t that many factories to wait outside of) is that desperate employees check their texts and emails to see what work they will have the following week, or, in some cases, the following day.

A zero-hour contract is, quite simply, where the employee must be available for whatever shifts they are given. Rotas may be produced on a weekly or monthly basis or, in some cases, a text message will be sent the day before an employee is needed to work.

For the employer, this is often ideal. After all, zero-hour contracts epitomise the labour market flexibility that neo-liberals believe in so wholeheartedly. According to Nick Clegg, it is this flexibility that has prevented Britain from suffering the kind of spike in unemployment that some other developed countries have faced. Statistics would suggest that unemployment is indeed falling: the number of people out of work fell by 57,000 to 2.51 million in the three months leading up to May.

But who is counted in that 2.51 million figure?

Not people on zero-hour contracts, that’s for sure. People who do this type of casual work usually find themselves with a different number of hours each week, not to mention inconsistency of shifts. And, as the name suggests, this number of hours could be as low as zero – for weeks on end.

I know this happens. At the hotel where I work, the amount of shifts my colleagues and I are asked to work varies immensely. If it is busy, we get more hours – and if not, we don’t. For the first four months of this year, I was given a total of three shifts to work. Two of these at the last minute because someone else had called in sick. For some of my work friends, who are totally reliant on shifts at the hotel for shelter and sustenance, getting as little as four hours work a week made for particularly desolate times.

More often than not, zero-hour contracts come hand-in-hand with low wages. The minimum wage, in my case. “There’s no point complaining, though”, as one friend pointed out, “it’s perfectly legal, what they’re doing”. And it’s true. In 2013 Britain, just like in Victorian Britain, it is perfectly legal to class someone as employed – and yet give them no work. Essentially, zero-hour contracts provide a convenient loophole to businesses when it comes to employment law.

Take firing someone. On paper, the same rules apply whether you’re dealing with someone on a zero-hour contract as with any other employee: you must give them notice. The length of this notice, however, can be completely disregarded should they be contracted zero hours. The employer may just stop giving you work from the moment they decide they don’t like you. I’ve seen this happen. I’ve seen rotas where (even on a busy week) a certain individual isn’t given any shifts. Then, it happens the next week… and the next week, and the next week, until one day, their name ceases to be on the rota.

As austerity hits harder, and people get poorer and more vulnerable, these zero-hour contracts are rapidly on the rise. When there is so little work around, people are forced to take these insecure, often poorly paid, jobs. In 2005, just 54,000 people were on zero-hour contracts. Now, in 2015, the Office for National Statistics estimates that this number is now at least 250,000, although politicians and charities have been calling for a review of this – as it could be much higher. (UPDATE, 05/08/13: it has been revealed the number is in excess of one million.) 19% of hotels and restaurants use these precarious contracts, usually with only a small fraction of staff (the management) contracted to work full-time.

Some companies need a level of flexibility, we cannot escape that fact. In the hospitality industry, for instance, hotels and restaurants will be busy sometimes, and quiet others; that’s just the nature of the industry. Nevertheless, this isn’t an excuse to exploit a workforce. People need to plan their lives, plan childcare, and plan how much food they can put on the table.

So how do we escape “zero-hour Britain”?

We should look to the partly-successful Living Wage Campaign. But we should not only celebrate those companies who pay the Living Wage, but also those who contract working hours to their employees.

It has become fashionable in recent years for businesses to present themselves as ethical: to use fair-trade products, to be “green” and to use locally sourced foods. Or green-washing, as it is often known to us cynics.

The Living Wage is rapidly becoming the new ethical label to acquire, and rightly so. The campaign gives hope to so many on the minimum wage and as such is making a real difference across the country. Surely the next logical step to extend this hope by eliminating these callous zero-hour contracts.

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