Zero-hours contracts prove only one thing: spiralling inequality

As of 2014, 2.3 per cent of the UK workforce was bound by one of these commitment-fearing agreements, whilst the Office for National Statistics ‘said that zero-hours workers were more likely to be women or in full-time education and aged under 25 or over 65’. Why then is the Chandler Bing of employment contracts being talked about as ‘unethical’?

The definition of a zero-hours contract (a ZHC, or casual contract) is, according to the BBC, a contract of employment ‘which allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work. They mean employees work only when they are needed by employers, often at short notice. Their pay depends on how many hours they work’. ZHCs are used in both private and public sectors (around a quarter of contracts in public healthcare are zero hours), hospitality, retail, healthcare and education. The quantity of ZHCs in the UK has boomed since the crash of ’08, and they are also popular with employers in Ireland, Canada and New Zealand (where, on the 9th of April this year, Restaurant Brands actually agreed to bin ZHC). There are also, ‘concerns about the possibility of exploitation and the use of such contracts by management as a tool to reward or reprimand employees for any reason’.

I worked in a pub chain and really enjoyed it. I made great friends, worked in a sociable environment and there was a real community feel to the place because of the relationships I had with the regulars, friends coming in and the group of people I was working with. At the time I was between being a student at university and living at home, so the money I was earning suited my situation, I could afford to get by, saved up to go away and (a fair amount of the time) was able to pick up work when I needed. But this is not the whole story and is the side of zero-hours contracts that the government and big businesses have pushed far more than the other.

For me, on a genre of contract that is so scrupulously obedient to disparity of the free market, I found people were often clocked-off either later and earlier than they should have been, and called up on pretty short notice before a shift was due to start – which one can say no to, but when you have your boss on the phone and you need ‘more hours’, it is a bit harder. You are effectively on call most of the time, more so than in most other jobs, and on minimum wage.

Having set hours is better for your state of mind and the state of our wallet. Maybe I should have grown a backbone, who knows? As the work is based on hours offered, there were times when workers out of favour with those in charge often received less hours. This in turn means less morale, less money for the worker and higher tensions. In terms of looking for work elsewhere whilst on a ZHC, it is doable but tricky due to the ‘on call’ element of the job. The phrase ‘I need/want more hours’ was somewhat ubiquitous and was something that, if you established a good rapport with your superiors (as with other forms of employment) could be managed.

However, it is categorically absurd that workers on zero-hours contracts are spoke of as ‘lazy’ especially  at a time when everywhere we are told how people, in particular young people and immigrants, ‘don’t want to work’. I gave the working in the city thing a go and, at that time, the commute was unaffordable, so I was forced to find work locally. From the profits the businesses using ZHCs are turning over, businesses such as Sports Direct (with profits in 2014 reaching £239 million, whilst 90 per cent of its 23,000 employees were on ZHCs), Amazon, Tesco, Burger King, Hobbycraft and Boots, McDonalds, J. D. Wetherspoons, Cineworld and even Buckingham Palace, they need to be offering some job security, i.e., consistent hours to those who need them most, the poorer sector of our society.

I was working with a single mum, and had the utmost respect for her being able to raise kids on a ZHC lifestyle. Whether she had help from the state or not I never asked, the point is that whether or not someone is working full-time on a ZHC, benefits are legally a more stable form of income. Not only are the Conservative Government chucking young people in mountains of debt for wanting an education and slamming up rents, they are also making it the case that the jobs they have are giving them no guarantee of work from one week to the next. In my town in Essex rent was expensive enough, but it must be remarkably hard for someone to be renting in London on a ZHC.

I’m now on a fixed contract and it gives you greater piece of mind as well as better pay, yet I feel that ridding our system of ZHCs won’t change much as casual work has been around for quite a long time now. In a video entitled ‘Disposable Life’, Slavoj Žižek claims ‘there are not evil people here and there, the problem is the basic logic of the system’ and that in reality ‘80 per cent of us are disposable’ components in our globalised economy, not just those on ZHCs.

The redistribution of wealth would tackle the problem at its heart and cure our society of many ills; a zero-hour contract being but a symptom of our ever-growing inequality. It is our capitalist paradigm which funnels money to the top through quantitative easing and ‘socialism for the few’ that is unethical. If CEOs have a quiet couple of hours they aren’t ‘taken off the clock’, why then should the people at the other end of things be so?



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