Zero-hour contracts have been in the news quite a bit lately. Here are some recent links:
“Britons rally against ‘Zero Hour’ contracts”
“McDonald’s ties nine out of 10 workers to zero-hours contracts”
“Pressure mounts on Sports Direct over zero-hours contracts.”
“Buckingham Palace uses zero-hours contracts for summer staff”
“Zero-Hours Contracts: Do They Help Or Hurt Employers And Employees?”
But, let’s be clear: zero-hour contracts have been around for a long time. They have been a convention in various industries, particularly those where migrant and women workers have predominated.
In some respects, this discussion follows up on this post on service work, but isn’t confined to it.
The trajectory of their recent expansion has followed this path. Here’s an extract from a Solidarity Federation newsletter from 2011:
Claire, a public sector English teacher in Deptford: I’ve been working as an English teacher in Further Education (FE) on an hourly paid contract on and off since 2003. In my workplace, 60 out or 230 of us are hourly paid. Those who are unlucky enough to be hourly paid, including me, are on a zero hours contract with no minimum of guaranteed hours. We get paid about 65% of what we would get if we were permanent staff on the lowest grade, but we don’t move up the pay scale as we get more experience, so we stay on that pay rate indefinitely. […]
The issue, in this sense, is not that zero-hour contracts are new, but that they have more recently—as with precarious forms of work generally—been encountered by those who are neither migrants nor women and, with therefore the predictable consequence that they seem to have been only now discovered by mainstream trade unions, such as Unite. Indeed, Unite has become more active since it was heavily criticised for not being structurally able or politically willing to engage effectively with the actual conditions of its field. Some of this was signalled by the establishment of the pop-up union during the occupation at Sussex University.
In other words, what may be new is that mainstream unions have realised they can no longer get away with their determined neglect of those who have, for the most part, been outside the security & independence granted by the standard Fordist wage contract, its particular forms of bargaining, organisation and conflict. Whether they are capable of responding by generating something more adequate to the terms of these particular contractual arrangements remains to be seen. But all of this illustrates, once again, that the only result of pursuing a protectionist strategy is a downward spiral for everyone.