When my partner and I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne last year, one of the first attractions we visited was the excellent Discovery Museum. We were particularly interested in an exhibition which charted the social history of Tyneside. One display stood out; that which described the effect of the 1920s and 1930s recession on families who were reliant on the docks for work. The panel described how hundreds of men, desperate for work, would queue up at the dock gates from the early hours until the dock supervisor decided how many labourers he needed that day. The remainder were sent home with no work for that day.
Having being sheltered by the relative security and stability of working in a unionised workplace for 13 years, where changes to terms and conditions were generally negotiated and I always knew from one month to the next what my pay would be, I encountered ‘zero-hours’ contracts for the first time last year. I had taken redundancy and enrolled on a full-time degree course as a mature student.
The first eye-opener for us was when we started to look for work for my partner, who had a long employment history with an exclusive independent hotel. I had naively thought that similar jobs would always be available. I could not have been more wrong. Several applications and interviews, which were attended at great expense, passed. Finally my partner found what appeared to be the perfect job; Housekeeper for a national hotel chain. The advert offered full-time hours and we thought working for a national chain would provide security and better conditions than working for a smaller, independent hotel. A national chain may even recognise a Trade Union!
A few days after my partner started her new job when she brought home her employment contract. She was concerned as the opening paragraph informed her that she was employed as “an occasional worker”, despite the position being clearly advertised as full-time and being told at both interviews (both of which included a return train journey of 200 miles) that she would be working 35 hours a week. We were both incredibly distressed. My partner had only joined me in Newcastle on the basis that she had secured full-time hours, and now we were left with no way of knowing how much she would earn from one month to the next. It soon became only too clear what the reality of ‘zero-hours’ meant. Far from being an option to assist workers who need flexible hours, or to cover genuinely ‘occasional’ workers, these contracts were applied to all hotel staff.
With my student loan and my partner working for the minimum wage, we had a very tight budget to stick to. However this was planned based on her having 35 hours’ work, anything less would have a serious impact on our monthly budget. After the first two weeks it became clear that we had no ability whatsoever to budget. Some weeks my partner was given four days’ work, other weeks just two days. On one Saturday she arrived at work (after a journey involving two buses and lasting about forty-five minutes) to be told they had no work for her that day, and none for the following week. Even if we could speculate as to what her income would be it was pointless trying to access tax credits as she is only 24 and is considered too young to receive support from the state.
A further, and often ignored, problem of zero-hours was that her shifts were not planned until the Friday before the week started on Monday, presumably as the hotel wanted to confirm exact guest numbers before rostering staff. This meant we were also unable to plan spending anytime together, we could not plan to visit friends and family in our home town as we never knew from one week to the next which days my partner would be working. Essentially she was totally beholden to her employer. What could she do? In my previous workplace the Trade Union would have taken up the case and almost certainly would have secured permanent rights for her and the other staff, particularly as the job advert had explicitly stated the post was full-time. However with no Trade Union to speak on her behalf she would have been a lone voice, coupled with having no employment rights for the first two years would probably have been sacked.
How have we allowed this to happen in the twenty-first century? Wasn’t this exactly the conditions in the nineteenth century that led Liberal pioneers to push for reform of the relationship between employer and worker and later the birth of the Labour Party to achieve parliamentary representation for the very same people who today are being exploited by zero-hours contracts? We hear much from all three political parties about the need ‘for work to pay’, yet hundreds of thousands of workers are being exploited in this way. Unable to budget, unable to forecast, unable to plan family and social time off work, and unable to complain or speak out for genuine fear of being sacked with no right to seek redress at an Employment Tribunal. Those who can, will rely on the state to top-up their incomes, but for most state assistance will be out of reach. Yet at the same time governments can report lower unemployment and higher employment, while ignoring the plight of these zero-hour workers who are fast becoming akin to the Victorian underclass.
Labour MPs are rightly starting to speak out about zero-hours contracts, but Trade Unions and Labour must come together to ensure that a future Labour government commits to outlaw them except in very specific, short term cases (such as bank nursing, or supply teachers, where the worker has made a conscious decision to work on an ad-hoc basis). Labour made great inroads into the scandal of agency workers being used as de-facto full-time workers so that employers could circumvent employment rights, and Labour must do the same with zero-hours contracts.