Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/776/17224
End zero-hour contracts now!
Helen Pattison, London Socialist Party
At Sports Direct, Boots, Buckingham Palace, Wetherspoons, even for the government, zero-hour contracts are becoming widely used. The extent of the use of zero-hour contracts has been exposed over the last few weeks following the revelation that 90% of Sports Direct workers are employed on this basis. Nationally over one million people suffer on these contracts - mainly people aged over-55 and under-25.
The flexibility and benefits they offer for the employer are numerous but it's a very different story when it comes to the employees, who can go weeks without work and are bullied into and out of hours at the whim of the bosses. Employers often call just before shifts start and demand staff come in. If that member of staff can't work they often have little chance of getting work again.
The big flexibility con
It's true that despite the 3.3 million who want more hours at work, there are also a layer of workers, such as students and parents, who don't want to work full time all the time. Students are usually looking for more work during the busier time of year and parents often want part time hours which they can fit around childcare.
But even in these cases workers don't benefit from the lack of hours or unreliability of a zero-hour contract. Zero-hour contracts don't mean low hours, they mean that you could be asked to work no hours for a whole week and illegally high numbers of hours the next. What is certain is turning down hours means being deemed inflexible by the employer and leads to less hours if not no hours at all.
Lib Dem minister Vince Cable thinks we need to keep some zero-hour contracts because some people want to work a number of jobs. But people only work more than one job because they need more hours and pay.
The contracts were not created to help workers but to make a flexible and fireable workforce which could easily be disposed of if they sought better conditions - all part of a race to the bottom and to unfair working practices. The economic crisis, created by the bankers and big corporations and facilitated by their friends in Westminster, has cut off many traditional avenues for capitalists to make profit.
We won't pay!
The bosses are attempting to protect their profits by making us pay instead - whether through cutting jobs, attacking services or trying to spend less on their workforce in any way possible, including zero-hour contracts. If it isn't a zero-hour contract then its workfare schemes, where unemployed people are used to undercut the minimum wage and offer free labour to big companies.
A 'flexible' labour market with high unemployment doesn't only allow employers to squeeze out more profit by sending staff home early but is used to oust trade unions and organising in workplaces.
As public services are sold off and outsourcing increases, working conditions in the public and private sector will continue to drop. When Serco took over running community services in Suffolk, the company made huge staff cuts to ensure they made more profit.
Not only does this mean worse services but also a huge loss in pay for the staff and being pushed onto zero-hour contracts with no guarantee of work. And it isn't even just outsourced sectors which have started to use these contracts. Councils, the NHS and social care are using them widely too.
2.5 million people are unemployed and there are five jobseekers chasing every job. But these jobs could easily be zero-hours or commission-only jobs meaning again the employee still has no guaranteed income.
Fight for jobs
What we need is a programme of public works to create decent, secure and socially useful jobs for all those able to work. We need an end to the cuts to hospitals and other services which just cause higher unemployment. Instead services and jobs should be available to match the needs of working class communities.
The working rights that zero-hour contracts undercut were won through workers organising and fighting for better conditions though the trade unions in the past. Job creation, a living wage and decent contracts, will only be won if the trade unions step up and organise these workers.
Illegal practices are rife in pubs, restaurants, hospitality and call centres where trade union membership is lower. It will take concerted effort, education, and proving themselves to young workers from existing trade union organisers to unionise these sectors. But this is what is necessary to bring a new generation into trade union struggle and to fight for a world where a decent job is a right not a privilege.
If you want to find out more about the trade union in your workplace and Youth Fight for Jobs' Sick Of Your Boss campaign get in touch:
Youth Fight for Jobs Sports Direct protest reports
Fifty protesters gathered outside the Oxford Street branch of Sports Direct in central London on Saturday 3 August to demand an end to the company's use of zero-hour contracts, following the revelation that 90% of its workers are employed on this basis.
Young people who worked on similar contracts took to the megaphone to relay their experiences of the contracts which offer no guarantee of work or pay. Many employers also get away with not paying holiday or sick pay to zero-hour staff.
We heard how the contracts were used to oust staff trying to legally organise in trade unions and those who stood up to demand decent conditions at work. The protest occupied the shop for a brief time.
Ultimately now it is the role of the trade unions to organise these staff and carry on the fight for decent contracts.
London Youth Fight for Jobs
We got a fantastic response from shoppers and staff who came out to sign our petition against zero-hour contracts. Many young workers passing by from other shops also took our leaflets to hand out to their workmates. Sports Direct managers put plenty of security on the store entrance and refused to let us speak to staff after they heard Youth Fight for Jobs in London had entered the store. Retail workers of all ages were interested in joining a trade union and we gave out Usdaw and Unite trade union material. We will be following this up with actions in Dundee, Paisley and Edinburgh later in the month.
Matt Dobson, Scotland Youth Fight for Jobs
We were inundated by people passing by wanting to support us, sign our petition and take leaflets. I spent almost the entire protest doing interviews with the local press, both newspapers and radio stations.
Many people passing by had seen Youth Fight for Jobs activist Helen Pattison on Sky News (debating zero-hour contract enthusiast and former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins) earlier that day and were keen to talk about how we could secure decent jobs with a living wage. Several people wanted to get involved with the campaign. The previous day we had taken the same petition to Leeds Pride and had a similarly warm response.
Iain Dalton, Yorkshire Youth Fight for Jobs
Life on zero-hour contracts
"They treat us likes slaves, we have no chance to plan anything."
Sports Direct worker
I am a 20 year-old who has worked for both the NHS and for the social care department of the local authority. In this time, I have never had a paid day's holiday, I have never had sick pay and I have never worked a contracted hour.
I work pay cheque to pay cheque, I do not have any sort of job security or regular pay. One week I could work four or five shifts, the next one or none at all, and going six weeks without work is not uncommon. I have no control over when I work, and can be called into work up to an hour before the start of a shift. Because I have no idea when the call will come, it is almost impossible to claim benefits.
Originally I started work to gain experience and to pay my way through education. At the time I was supporting a partner - this was difficult and the choice between gas and electric was ever present and my education suffered. I now live with my parents and am earning money to pay rent. It is almost impossible to save or plan for anything, because the money that I earn could have to last me for months.
Recently the spotlight has been shone on zero-hour contracts and underemployment. The bosses call for a "flexible" workforce, but this is simply a euphemism for a more controlled and oppressed working class. Zero-hour contracts are a way to further control and exploit workers, especially young workers, who are often not unionised and have no other way to make a living.
My working life started off at Sports Direct around 2004 as a 15 year-old school boy. Of course it was minimum wage and yes it was a zero-hour contract.
After school, I trained as a joiner and endured an apprenticeship, again with master and servant conditions. Upon leaving that I was subject to some more harsh conditions working on various sites for horrible, blacklisting firms and other agencies.
The conditions of zero-hour contracts really do leave you at the mercy of your employer and aren't really much different to agency work.
With both you have no guaranteed hours, no sick pay, no holidays, and no redundancy pay. Dare to ask for a day off or can't work a shift that you are offered and you soon find whatever little work you had reduced or nothing at all the next week.
It all just reminds me of a Ken Loach film, the Navigators, where the railways are privatised, terms and conditions are eroded and the workers have to get jobs with agencies under similar conditions to those mentioned above. Just like the Navigators all around we see terms, conditions and workers' rights being slashed.
This has the makings of an epic struggle but one that must be taken if we are to discontinue the descent towards master and servant conditions.
Enough is enough!
Youth Fight for Jobs demands:
- Decent tea and lunch breaks and no being 'clocked off' when we take one. It's not possible to work long shifts without some time to breathe. We shouldn't be penalised for it
- Give us proper contracts, guaranteed hours and full employment rights. No to zero-hour contracts and insecure employment. No more uncertainty and insecurity dressed up as 'flexibility'!
- Pay us enough to live - Companies which make the bosses millions are paying us (who make them all that money) pennies. We want a living wage which is enough to afford the basics in life. Right now, many of us have to top up our wages with tax credits and benefits. We shouldn't have to. A living wage of £10 an hour is not too much to ask.
- Stop the bosses' 'fire at will' attitude, backed up by the government. Making it easier to sack us will increase unemployment - not reduce it!
- We won't be used as cheap or free labour on apprenticeships, internships and work-for benefits schemes. A day's work is a day's work and it deserves a decent day's pay.
- We have the right to get organised at work - Trade unions are there to help give workers protection and fight to improve our conditions. In this country there is a legal right to join a trade union. Despite this, workers who try to get organised are sometimes penalised by their bosses. We say the right to organise is fundamental - full trade union rights now!
- Scrap the anti-trade union laws - We have a right to try and improve our conditions and stop the bosses that 'make us sick!' It's up to us to democratically decide how we do this. If we want to go on strike or take action then that's up to us, the courts should not stop us.
- Build democratic campaigning trade unions - We want trade unions that will fight our corner. That means representing us in the workplace, defending us if we're under attack and, crucially, helping us use our collective strength as workers to fight back. All workers, young and old, deserve democratic trade unions with fighting leaders!
- No to benefit cuts - Attacks like this affect all of us, not just the unemployed. For a start thousands of low paid workers rely on benefits. If unemployment benefits are lowered it means the bosses have even less incentive to pay a decent wage. Don't let their lies divide us!
New issue of the Spark out now
Special Sick Of Your Boss edition of the Youth Fight for Jobs newsletter. Order from Youth Fight for Jobs
In The Socialist 14 August 2013:
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