|When zero-hours contracts first appeared, in the late eighties and early nineties, they were seen very much as something marginal that would never really get a hold here. It was a time when the struggles of the miners (1984-85) and the print workers (1986) were still fresh in people’s minds, and, although both of those actions ended in ultimate defeat for the working class, such had been the level of struggle that many thought we could only go forwards from there.
However, the long years of retreat that the trade-union movement has endured since then (under the poisonous misleadership of social democracy) has brought us to a place where, while not everyone is on zero-hours contracts, they have certainly become pretty common.
A certain amount of press space has been devoted to recent findings by a business survey that around one million workers were thought to be on zero-hours contracts – a number that dwarfed the official 200,000 figure put out by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). But new research carried out in cooperation with Unite points to a rapidly-growing “subclass of insecure employment” and concludes that as many as 5.5 million workers in Britain have been forced to accept zero-hours contracts of some type – mainly because they prefer them to the zero job alternative. (See unitetheunion.org, 8 September 2013)
Living on permanent stand-by
So what exactly are zero-hours contracts? They are literally what they say – workers have a contract to work for a company (ie, they are ‘employed’), but there are no set hours of work and no obligation to provide any. In some cases, workers are expected to sit by the phone each day to find out whether they will be working, much in the same way that the dockers of the last century used to line up on the dockside every morning.
In other cases, the worker may be expected to turn up to do just 2-3 hours’ work and then wait around at their place of employment for 4 hours or more on the off-chance that they might be needed for another couple of hours later on.
Whichever variation of zero-hours contracts a worker happens to be stuck with, one thing is true for all: this form of employment severely limits any plans they may have for the rest of their life. Meanwhile, the employer gets the workers they want, exactly when they want them, in the numbers they want, and with no need to pay for downtime or quiet periods.
Moreover, if anyone is in any way ‘troublesome’, or has problems with their health or that of their children ... or just can’t keep up with the required speed of work – they simply don’t get hours the next day. No need for expensive HR measures or for any of the inconvenience of catering to the needs and rights of employees!
For those who are able to keep their heads down and do everything they are told, there may be regular and relatively predictable work, but for many others work is erratic or practically non-existent. Those whose hours are few and far between then need to sign on and claim benefits to make up what little income they receive from their ‘employer’.
Anyone who has had to suffer the indignity of a dole interview will understand the feelings of hopelessness and irritation involved in having to make a claim when you cannot say when you will next work, but only when you last worked. This in turn causes problems with getting the money you need to survive, not to mention any housing benefit that you may be entitled to.
The usual outcome is that workers in this situation find they are constantly having to pay back chunks of benefit as a result of getting a few hours’ work at short notice after signing on. For anyone trying to live, pay bills, and often manage a family on a small income, this sporadic method of payment, never knowing when money is going to be demanded back from the dole (they always want every penny they say you owe them immediately), just adds to the extreme stress that workers are already forced to live under.
Divide and rule opposed by Hovis workers
The usual method employers use when introducing zero-hours contracts to a workplace is to state that the contracts will only apply to new employees, effectively destroying any unity among the workers instantly. This anti-worker approach is very often supported by the full-time trade-union officials who are supposed to be responsible for ‘assisting’ the targeted workforce.
The Hovis bread company recently closed down its bakeries in Birmingham and London and switched the workload to Wigan, where they also tried to impose zero-hours contracts. The workers at Wigan, to their credit, went on strike against this plan, and it now looks like the company may have taken a step backwards – at least retreating from the imposition of these contracts on the present staff on the scale originally intended.
However, whilst Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) officials are content to claim this as a victory, supposedly drawing a line in the sand which other employers must now respect, it seems that within the agreement Hovis remains free to use agency workers to cover busy times (as defined by the company, of course). And since agency workers are themselves vulnerable to zero-hours contracts imposed by their own agencies, this amounts to letting zero-hours conditions in by the back door.
In addition, the threat to ship in temps if “there is insufficient commitment by employees to work overtime and banked hours” effectively delivers an ultimatum to permanent staff: either work all the hours that God and Hovis send, or be prepared to work next to zero-hours agency workers with inferior pay and conditions. Given that permanent workers will not be replaced when they quit under the strain, the scope for yet more agency working can only expand.
And although in theory agency workers can claim equal pay three months into the job, Hovis is completely at liberty to terminate employment just shy of 12 weeks and fish a fresh victim out of the jobless pool without any troublesome employment rights.
The striking Hovis workers have had great support in Wigan and further afield and showed by their actions the readiness of workers to make a fight of it given half a chance. And of course holes can be picked in any compromise agreement ever concluded between labour and capital. But to claim this (as BFAWU does) as a “historic agreement” and a famous victory in truth does workers no favours, doing nothing to alert them to the true depth of the crisis and the revolutionary scale of the tasks which face the working class as a whole.
The shedding of 900 Hovis jobs across four plants since November has to be understood in the context of a crisis of overproduction ripping through every sector of the economy, wiping out surplus capacity and generating cut-throat competition between monopoly capitalist rivals.
It is against that background, for example, that we should read recent speculation that Mexican food giant Grupo Bimbo is sniffing around to add Hovis to its empire.
Neither shock-and-awe austerity nor reheated Keynesianism is going to magic away this crisis. The choice is clear: either resign ourselves to eking out an ever more miserable existence as the crisis worsens; or widen the scope of the class struggle, set capitalism itself in our sights and prepare for revolution.
Even the most minor industrial skirmishes, conducted behind such a political understanding, will yield invaluable political lessons, win or lose. Conversely, even the most famous victories will prove hollow unless the proletariat is able to break from social-democratic illusions.
Labour ‘support’ for exploited workers
Meanwhile, speaking to the TUC on 10 September, Labour party leader Ed Miliband pledged to ban the “misuse” of zero-hours contracts if elected! We are assured that this means stopping companies requiring workers to remain on standby when there is no work for them – but surely zero-hours contracts themselves, in any form, are an abuse of workers’ most basic rights?
Miliband has also heroically stated that, if elected, he will outlaw zero-hours contracts that tie workers to one employer! Yes, indeed, why shouldn’t two or three employers get to mess the same worker around?
Not content with such deception, he declared that zero-hours contracts were actually just fine for some of the lowest-paid and most exploited sections of the working class, such as young people working behind bars. The Labour party is the worker’s friend? With friends like these ...