Zero Hours: Zero Tolerance

11 Jul 2014

When these contracts hit the mainstream news I breathed a sigh of huge relief. The small amount of research I had previously undertaken was now part of something much bigger, and an alienated group of workers now (seemingly) had a voice. But as I continue to read a wide range of literature and comment surrounding these contracts, I fear that some people still do not grasp the seriousness and gravity of the message that critics like me are expressing.


Working in hospitality, I found myself reading the latest issue of The Caterer,with an article by Peter Hancock (Chief Executive of Pride of Britain Hotels) explaining to the management-centred readership that zero-hour contracts should not be dismissed as a bad thing. Although the gentleman writes very well, the ideas that he expresses are typical of those that fuel exploitation through these contracts.

Mr Hancock explains that “any fool can see that we must have the flexibility to bring in extra help when busy, and that it is simply not viable to keep all those extra staff on the payroll as a permanent fixture.”

I respect the position of Mr Hancock, and I wish not to insult his point of view. However, under his assumption, I must be a fool. The very thing that is wrong with these contracts is the way that management can determine exactly how and when they decide to honour their side of the employment agreement. Employment is more than merely a contract drawn up on company stationery. It is a socially engrained quid pro quo between a labourer and employer, designed to provide both with a means to comfortably survive. These contracts, and the ignorant arguments that go with them, are changing the rules of this agreement, and not for the better.

Held up as the shining justification of zero-hour contracts has been Vince Cable’s plan to eradicate ‘exclusivity clauses’ in these contracts. This has been done with the aim of stopping “unscrupulous employers” from abusing their staff by banning them from working elsewhere. However, in banning exclusivity, this then allows a company the opportunity to reduce hours further,and justify doing so by the ability of that employee to work elsewhere. It is a double-edged sword.

More importantly, Mr Hancock’s comments on the proposed ban on exclusivity demonstrate the real problem with such a ban. Mr Hancock says that this “gives workers the freedom to offer their time to more than one employer, which I see as a positive development.”

I find the vocabulary that goes along with this to be quite disturbing. Allowing workers the freedom to offer their time to more employers. I would ask: in what suffocating, Orwellian existence is having your time taken by two or three employers in order only to survive, classed as freedom? 

I have witnessed terrible abuses in the workplace. Fascist use of zero-hour contracts to deduct hours by way of punishment for not hitting sales targets or even for simply being unavailable. These contracts are deliberately used in sectors that have very little union involvement, on young people who see it contrary to their interests to speak out. Offering further freedom to enter even more employment like this, characterises exactly what is wrong with this debate.

Following this, it was then announced that all employees will be allowed, by law, to demand more flexibility in work. This is fantastic news for those who need a flexible working life in order to maintain more important affairs. But why has there been no law to demand security? 

The solutions being offered to us simply do not target the problem; they miss it entirely. They recognise that employers are using these contracts exploitatively, so they open channels to allow you to offer your labour to further zero-hours employers. They accept that you should have more control over how your labour is used, so they allow you to demand further flexibility at the discretion of your employer.

The debate is too heavily centred on how these contracts can be maintained so that they do not harm business. The quest for this answer must be abandoned, in favour of centring the debate about how to incorporate a right to demand stability as well as flexibility, regardless of the opinions of business leaders. Labour is only justifiable in that it allows those who do it to earn a stable living. Instead, multiple jobs are necessary for some, and the traditional 9-5 job no longer exists in the service industry. 

Jobs are being transformed into lifestyles. Or, more horrifically, lives are being transformed into jobs.

Zero-hour contracts, and the business-centric opinions that are attached to them, represent a wider problem of the way that work is being interpreted in our society. We are not faceless cogs that can be entered at will into your machine; we are human beings. We do not wish to demand even further flexibility; we demand stability. We do not want your twisted idea of freedom; we want to live.

By Samuel Mercer

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