Compulsory zero-hour contracts are suffocating our working class

12 Sep 2017

One of the biggest talking points during the EU referendum was that the UK had the fifth largest economy in the world. The electorate was expected to fall for this – after all, we all like money, right? Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the vote to leave the EU was labelled as ‘stunning’ or ‘shocking’ by media and voters alike.


The next day came cries about how the economy would likely be ruined overnight and how we as a country would end up poorer. Every passionate Remain voter felt anger that day because we could see opportunities slipping away from us and as a country we were more divided than ever.


This then led to anger and vitriol rather than any attempt to understand why people would vote to leave. When the demographics of the vote came out it was revealed that forty-seven out of the fifty lowest-earning areas had voted Leave, leading to much confusion amongst analysts. Why would the people who need money the most vote to risk our country’s prosperity? The answer, however, is quite simple: these people had never seen the wealth this country has.


Given Labour’s recent success, we could well be on our way to a greater redistribution of wealth if Jeremy Corbyn triumphs at the next election. Yet some people are not prepared to wait this long: enter the ‘McStrike’. For the first time in history, McDonald’s workers in Britain are going on strike over a variety of issues; including low pay, poor work place conditions, union recognition and zero-hour contracts that leave them with no guaranteed income.


McDonald’s has a net annual income of nearly $4.7 billion, but still refuses to guarantee regular work for many of its over eighty-five thousand UK employees. The biggest injustice of the situation is that these employees create the wealth that lines the pockets of a select few who have, in all likelihood, never worked a shift behind a McDonald’s counter in their lives.

It not only feels criminal that these workers are kept on such low pay despite working for a huge multinational corporation (they are now fighting for a minimum wage of £10 an hour), but also the widespread use of zero-hour contracts gives them no sense of job security. Of course, we are all told that such flexibility is theoretically beneficial to both employer and employee. Yet I struggle to see how this really does benefit the worker. If an employee must turn down a shift due to a more pressing engagement, there is no guarantee that those hours will be made up another day, thereby reducing the worker’s monthly salary. Recent ONS figures show that there are currently over nine hundred thousand workers on zero-hour contracts. That’s nearly one million people who don’t know if they’ll be able to pay their bills, feed their children or even pay for a new uniform next month.


Of course, I won’t deny their usefulness. People like students can use the flexibility of a zero-hour contract to work around their studies and social lives. But when we examples such as this we forget the nuances of the situation. Workers, whether they’re students, parents, carers and whoever else, deserve the rights to be involved in their own work processes. Flexibility and zero-hour contracts are not exclusive. Employers should provide an option of a fixed-term contract and if the employee turns the offer down then they are within their right to do so.


People often debate zero-hour contracts as though every firm must decide between either them or fixed-term contracts, but it is the offer of both that provides workers with the best opportunity. It is a sorry indictment of our country if we believe that companies deserve more rights than the people who work for them. 

It is not just pay and job security that has troubled those involved in the ‘McStrike’ either. Videos released by the left-wing organisation Momentum have shown McDonald’s workers discussing the danger their work involves. Many receive frequent burns and there are rarely adequately first aid-trained staff on site to treat them. This can lead to their injuries deteriorating, such as in the case of one worker who was told to treat a burn from a fryer with ice instead of the cold water, despite her knowing that water would be more effective.


Another worker in the video explains that employees do not feel comfortable enough to call out their employers for not providing sufficient safety equipment. Their fear is that the insecurity of a zero-hour contract means that their jobs are constantly at risk. Yet there should be no debate over safety and security in a workplace that offers you neither, nor is it a big ask to be offered both out of basic human respect.


What big business and the government fail to realise is that when workers have more money they not only rely less on government benefits (most people on benefits are in some form of employment), but are also able to contribute more tax and spend more money within the economy. It’s a win/win situation.


The government and corporations need to recognise that it is the working class of this country that generate - and have always generated - the wealth they seldom get to enjoy. It begs the question: why should the working class go on creating wealth for the élite, but not for themselves?

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