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Issue #1701      September 9, 2015

Zero hours, zero powers

David Cameron’s shameless pretence of leading “the real party of working people” is exploded by the runaway rise of zero-hours employment.

Zero tolerance for zero hours - protesters

Almost three-quarters of a million people are now languishing on these abusive contracts, not knowing from week to week how many hours they will get or what their income will be – a rise of a fifth in a single year.

And those are just the Office for National Statistics figures.

As Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn notes, these stats are just “the tip of the iceberg,” both because zero-hours contracts are not the only form of underemployment stalking the workforce and because the ONS survey may actually be understating the problem.

Forget the Business Department’s guff about this surge in superexploitation having a “part to play in a modern, flexible market” and providing a “pathway to employment.”

If zero-hours was a pathway to secure, regular jobs we would not see the number of such contracts spiralling out of control. But that is exactly what is happening.

Forty percent of workers trapped on zero-hours contracts say they would prefer to work longer. This is not a “flexible” situation for them. Instead, it risks becoming the new normal, as Jon Ingham of recruitment website Glassdoor observes.

“With 255,000 of these contracts held by 16 to 25-year-olds, it doesn’t feel like the best start in their careers,” he says. “But for many it’s all they know so they just get swept along and accept this ‘pay as you go’ employment as the norm.”

This is a “norm” which sees workers earn 60 percent less each week than people with permanent jobs. It means two in five zero-hours workers get so little work they do not qualify for essential lifelines such as statutory sick pay.

The Tories’ “modern” labour market is one where you don’t know whether you can feed your family or pay the bills in the coming week, you can’t afford to get ill and you can’t plan ahead financially.

In short, a return to the exploitation, poverty and insecurity that the labour movement has spent the last century battling to defeat, whether through winning the weekend and the eight-hour day (neither of which exist for too many of us nowadays) or through building up the social security safety net that was intended to banish the spectre of starvation forever.

Working people cannot just lie down and accept the way the rules of the game are being rewritten by the rich.

It is true that the Conservative Party’s refusal to act on zero-hours is encouraging more and more employers to plump for the option that gives them maximum freedom to pick up and drop workers on a whim.

It’s also true that Tory cuts share responsibility for the growing crisis – since cash-strapped local authorities have a pressing incentive to hire the cheapest and least responsible contractors.

And sadly it is also the case that zero-hours workers can be the hardest to organise – being able to cut an employee’s hours at a whim is a forbidding weapon in the hands of bosses who wish to intimidate or victimise staff who join a union or try to stick up for themselves and their colleagues.

But organise them we must.

That’s why it was great to hear from GMB general secretary Paul Kenny about the workers who are fighting back, campaigning for regular hours at workplaces as diverse as a warehouse for online clothing retailer Asos, the kitchens at an upmarket hotel and a Marks and Spencer storage depot.

We can’t wait on MPs to beat these contracts. We have to do it ourselves.

Morning Star

Next article – The false Israeli façade

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