The Collins English dictionary defines ‘Zero Hour’ as a noun meaning either ‘the time set for the start of an attack or the initial stage of an operation’ in military usage or more informally as ‘a critical time, especially at the commencement of an action.’
It is possible to view the practice of zero-hour contracts in a similar sense, as one of the initial stages of an assault by corporate interests on their base level workers.
I’ve twice worked on a zero hour contract, the first occurrence almost a decade ago lasted for eighteen months, involved relatively consistent hours and eventually resulted in a full time job. The second occurrence was a few months ago and lasted less than a month due to it quickly becoming apparent that the situation was untenable.
The main difference is that ten years ago, I pretty much had my own rent and beer money to worry about, was just happy to have a job after being unemployed for a few months and also worked for a small company who effectively used casual contracts to break in potential full time employees. Now however, I have a mortgage to pay, a wife and child to support have been used to full time employment for the previous eight years and signed up with a company where the job was never going to turn into regular work. The first time I encountered such contracts, I got lucky and I didn’t recognise it at the time.
As I found in my mid twenties, a zero hour contract can be a good option for students or young people, who can take shifts at unsocial hours and are only requiring the bare minimum of income (to cover rent + beer in my case) but increasingly the fashion for ‘casual’ contracts is impinging on normal jobs and older people who are looking for regular, steady employment.
A zero hours contract means that you can’t budget or schedule much in advance, seeing as you don’t know what shifts you’ll be working and thus how much you will be paid, month by month. This effectively leaves a zero hours worker in a perpetual state of fear that they might not get any or enough shifts next month and be left short. These jobs also tend to pay the minimum wage or close to it (because if you value an employee enough to pay them more than that, you’ll tend to tie them down to a proper contract) meaning that a zero hours worker can rarely afford to save much against the likelihood of having a poorly paid month in the future.
Furthermore, a zero hours contract puts all the cards in your employer’s hands. They are not beholden to offer you a certain number of hours (and thus a reliable income) and can effectively use your need for those hours to compel you to work as and when they want, sometimes without notice and often at anti-social hours, such as nights, weekends or holiday periods.
The practise is also open to abuse, with employers able to effectively fire staff that they don’t like by the expedient of not offering them shifts with the employee effectively left without recourse. Indeed, in this case a staff member who hasn’t formally been fired has to quit, barring them from seeking benefits for a period as they have made themselves unemployed.
Supposedly, the benefits of a zero hour contract for the employee are that it allows them flexibility in when they accept work but this is not a fair reflection of how this works because employees will only be offered shifts when they are needed and if the employee exercises their ability to refuse shifts because they have other plans, the chances are that there might not be a requirement for shifts to make up those hours and a likelihood that a sniffy manager will choose to offer shifts to other, more desperate individuals.
So, it’s not as if you can say ‘I can’t work Saturday, but I’ll make it up through the week’ as you might in a normal, fixed hours job, you either take the shifts offered or risk never getting an hours ever again.
Basically, a zero hours contract is a way for employers to exploit people’s desperation, allowing them to benefit from cheap labour, without the possibility of incurring regular outgoings in terms of wages during periods of low business.
The ethical and social damage of such practices are self-evident but some cynical types might defend this as a necessary business practice. However, even from a hard headed capitalist point of view it’s economically short sighted as by robbing people of regular and reliable wages companies might save in the short term, but they remove their own employees ability to drive the economy by using disposable income to purchase items as they now have no disposable income.
In my view, these contracts should be banned and companies compelled to at least offer temporary, fixed term & fixed hour contracts with the potential for overtime which would provide employees with a measure of job security, the ability to make a ‘worst case’ budget and still benefit from flexibility and the potential to make more money in busy periods.
Furthermore, it would give low wage workers the security to perhaps spend a little more on things they don’t need to survive, which would increase consumer spending and drive economic growth, which is what every good capitalist wants, right?
Basically, an employment contract should also be regarded as a social contract between employee, employer and society as a whole, where each gives fair support to the other two parties. A drive for profit over the needs of workers hurts everyone in the end and is the result of short sighted, selfish thinking.
Surely it is better to take the long view, for social equality, economic stability and a sustainable business model. Oh, and human empathy but I’m guessing that the kind of companies who have switched to zero hours contracts sadly don’t think in such terms…
This article first appeared on the Scottish Left Project site.