Zero-hours Contracts – The Underemployed

Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life” – Confucius

Imagine a world where everyone springs out of bed each morning knowing they are heading to a workplace they love.

It’s not easy.

Lives lived on the rubbish tips in Lagos, in clothes factories in Bangladesh and on the manufacturing lines of our best-loved tech brands in China leave an incredible stain on our consumer conscience.

And even in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, the zero-hours contracts that have become the norm for upward of 1m people working everywhere from local councils to large chains, are another blemish. They leave many employees uncertain, uninvested in and ultimately underemployed.

Consider this: strolling to work knowing that representatives directly elected by you are happily working alongside those chosen by your employer. You’re looking ahead to your first sailing holiday, taken at the retreat owned by your firm, and your future is assured by the company pension scheme. In fact, you even know you’ll get six months off, paid , when you reach 25 years – who wouldn’t stay at a place like this? And in the meantime, you’re able to take paid leave to work within your community. Not to mention, your company bonus has been on average an extra 15 per cent of your salary for the last five years.

A fantasy? A work of fiction? Or one of the UK’s most well-known stores?

Unlike many workers in the UK, this is a reality for employees, not just ‘partners’ working at John Lewis, one of the UK’s largest chains of department stores. A successful British brand, and an employee-owned business, not failing, but actually bringing in more profit than many years pre-recession, in spite of, or rather because everyone has a stake in its success.

Profit rose too at McDonald’s this year, increasing 3.7 per cent to $1.4bn. The same McDonald’s that has used zero-hours contracts since it rocked up here in 1974, underemploying 90 per cent of its 92,000-strong workforce. At Sports Direct, profits soared 40 per cent to more than £200m. But 90 per cent of its 23,000 staff, those working with zero guarantee of hours or workplace benefits, won’t be sharing in it. The Queen’s very own Buckingham Palace has likewise taken people on with no guarantee of work and pay. Although the nature of the latter’s jobs are seasonal, surely managers at each of these large employers can be sure of how many people they need from one week to the next?

Zero-hours contracts, the increase in part-time and casual work, the failure of the minimum wage to deliver anything other than the bare minimum and a lack of a true living wage are symptoms of a sick system. They symbolise a short-sightedness where cynical employers see their workers as a cost, not a valuable resource, merely something that could one day be replaced by a machine.

We know that executive pay and bonuses go up in both the corporate and public sector, while the gap between the rich and the poor widens and 700,000 public sector workers are laid to rest. Agency staff, guaranteed no paid holiday, sick days, bonuses, job security, or even working hours, obligingly take their place. ‘At least I have a job’, they think.

This is typified in care work, where the modus operandi should, of course, be caring, but instead councils cut corners by buying cheap private sector services where workers are badly paid, poorly trained and are ultimately replaceable. Those at the top call it ‘flexible’, they say it’s a ‘buyers’ market’ for employers – workers are a commodity to be bought and sold after all – so turnover of staff doesn’t matter. There are plenty more where they came from.

New Labour called this globalisation, while the Coalition is now pitting ‘us’ (British Nationals) against ‘them’ (Illegal Immigrants) with vitriolic ‘Go Home’ messaging, omitting the fact that we welcomed in immigrant workers to ensure there would always be someone more desperate to do it for less. Meanwhile our education system, failing on maths and languages, left us ill-prepared to be able to go and do work elsewhere.

Our global economy failed. That’s what the Conservatives have been blaming on Labour for the last three years while further deconstructing workers’ rights and our public institutions. Labour has looked on, knowing full well it sold out the hard-working people that made its name and bought into the kind of corporate thinking that helped get us to where we are today.

No one has the right to a job, many will argue, much less one they like, but every unemployed person could become the next benefit claimant, the next person seeking help for depression from the NHS or the next crime statistic. The next member of the ‘undeserving poor’ scrounging from the tax payer.

There is no getting away from the fact that the UK’s economy has a few broken cogs that have contributed to the failed system, like the minor detail that many big corporations don’t pay taxes. And, the in-work benefits system – a supplement for low wages – is used by more people than the amount spent on welfare for the unemployed. A policy which incidentally also serves as good ploy to ensure unemployment figures are within ‘acceptable’ levels come election time.

Perversely, our rotten economy actually depends on people having money to spend. These same businesses that pay their workers poorly need consumers to be able go out and buy things just as much as their staff need security in work. With wages held down and little confidence in the future, the tills are unlikely to be ringing as loudly as shareholders and pension fund managers would like.

Like the environment, tax avoidance and housing, our politicians have failed us on ensuring we have the jobs that we need, and we have, knowingly or not, left ourselves with very little means of protection. While the Trade Union Congress has recently analysed the phenomenon of the casualisation of labour, falling union membership and successive government attacks on organised labour have left them in little position to bolster a meaningful fight back.

For every John Lewis, it appears, there are many more McDonalds. And there is always a high-paid exec who argues that their industry will go elsewhere if pay and bonuses are curbed, while millions have to wait silently for a call into work that might never come.

We consider ourselves world leaders, but how can we lead the world’s workers into secure and meaningful work when we can’t even guarantee it for our own? The Government not only tells us to get on our bikes and find a job, but also knows that there may be zero work when we get there, even if we’ve signed a contract.

In a world where a contract means nothing, where work means nothing, where next?

Illustration by Sky Nash

Written for Let’s Be Brief.

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