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Zero Tolerance for Zero Hours

KD Tait reports on how the rise in zero hour contracts exposes the bosses’ latest strategy to beat the crisis – at our expense

 First published by the Revolutionary Socialists

Up to one million workers are employed on zero hour contracts in Britain. These contracts give people no guarantee of work, but force them to be available to work at their employer’s convenience.

Working an average 19.5 hours a week, these contracts are becoming the norm in hotels, catering and leisure. In the care sector more than 300,000 people are employed on terms that offer zero job security.

The following figures provide some idea of the scale: Nine out of ten McDonalds and Sports Direct staff, 80 per cent of Wetherspoon’s staff and Cineworld’s entire part time workforce are employed on zero hour contracts that maximise value and minimise cost for the employer.

The numbers of those employed on these terms have swelled 32 per cent in the last year. The government claims that more and more jobs are being created, but the truth is that job creation is almost entirely down to bosses replacing full time staff on permanent contracts with temporary and part time staff.

Who benefits?

Zero hour contracts are good for bosses and bad for workers. Shift patterns are manipulated, leaving workers with no reliable income from week to week. This forces workers to put up with unsociable hours, unpaid overtime, and humiliating, degrading and dangerous working conditions. If they don’t they can have their hours cut to zero – a way for bosses to sack uncooperative workers without having to go through the legal formalities.

To strengthen the bosses’ right to put their profits before social responsibility, the Tories have scrapped legal aid for employment tribunals. This means if you’re unfairly sacked or discriminated against at work, you’ll have to pay £1,200 to make a claim.

Bosses defend these contracts by saying they provide the flexibility that workers want, but a 2013 study by the National Institute Economic Review showed that the number of workers who want to work more hours than their boss will provide is spiralling. This “underemployment rate” has soared from 6.2 per cent of the workforce in 2008 to almost 10 per cent in 2012.

The problem is particularly acute amongst young workers. Already hammered by an unemployment rate which has hovered at 20 per cent for more than three years, another 30 per cent of workers aged 16-24 say they want to work longer hours. Workers identifying as Black or Black British face higher than average rates of under- and unemployment.

The increase in underemployment is a feature of the economic crisis, which means bosses try to maintain profit rates by making fewer workers do the work that was previously shared out amongst bigger workforces.

Zero hour contracts are a good reflection of the way in which the bosses’ control of the economy is used to make working people pay for the crisis. Profits are defended by sacking workers, increasing the amount of work employees are required to do in a given amount of time, keeping wage increases down, and using unreliable shift patterns and the fear of unemployment to extract as much work as possible from the workforce.

Labour’s Andy Burnham wants to ban zero hour contracts. So do we. But we want more: give every worker a permanent contract; reduce the working week to 30 hours without loss of pay, so we can share the available work around; restore legal aid so workers can fight for their rights against tight-fisted bosses.

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