Zero hour = zero ethics? The tricky politics of short-term working contracts

By Helen Lawless

ACCORDING TO SCOTTISH FIENDLY, unemployed people have 9.3 per cent of income left over after essentials are paid for – compared to 7.8 per cent for zero-hour workers. What does this mean for Britain’s army of young workers on short-term, short-notice contracts?

There has been a great deal of controversy around zero-hour contracts of late, and this condemning piece of evidence will justify many previous claims that the UK’s current economic recovery is uneven, and at the expense of those who had the least economic security to begin with. Zero hour contracts offer the false promise of a decent livelihood, taking advantage of those who need income the most, but they fail to provide the basic standard of living that unemployment benefits do. And young people are one of the most vulnerable groups in this skewed economic recovery, as they are more often likely to be reliant on part-time employment and zero hour contracts.

Part-time work is often taken up by young people because it requires less experience and because it can fit in alongside other commitments such as studying. Zero-hour contracts have become an increasingly common strategy amongst larger retail chains, namely Amazon, which brought them into the forefront of the public eye; as they help cut costs and allow retailers to flexibly adapt their workforce according to volumes of trade. Essentially not having to guarantee hours to workers, or let them know their shifts more than a couple of hours in advance, means that a firm rarely needs to pay more workers than it requires, or be short-staffed: both common problems in an industry as mercurial and fast-paced as retail. So from the employers’ perspective it makes perfect sense; but for the people who rely on this kind of work, it creates a great deal of psychological and financial insecurity.

The unpredictability of these contracts means that it is near impossible to plan your social life, studies, or basically anything else. You aren’t able to commit firmly to anything in advance or form a comfortable daily routine, because when you’re offered work, it is vastly too much of a risk to turn it down. It’s too high a risk not just because there is the phantom possibility that you will be fired for doing so, although that has been known to occur, but more saliently because you don’t know when your next shift will be offered, or how many hours it will be, so you can’t afford to say no to immediate income. Moreover, not knowing when your income is coming, or what it’s likely to be, makes it extraordinarily difficult to make sound financial plans about your spending and thus your life. Zero-hour contracts are also often associated with a lack of benefits or advancement possibilities, and an inability to attain credit.

This news comes as a damning edict to the current government, who will no doubt be running their re-election platform on the amount of jobs they have generated whilst in office. Not all employment is created equal, and zero hour contracts take advantage of people trying to make the best of things, and cope with rapidly rising living costs. For example, a recent report from Ofgem has shown that energy prices have risen twice as fast as inflation, and four times as fast as the average wage. Let alone a wage that is inferior to jobseekers’ allowance. This exploitative form of employment has been denounced by many activist groups and trade unions already, one of the most significant of which is the University College Union, which is campaigning to stop “casual employment” in university staffing. Another effort which has been growing in support and causing quite a stir as a result is a Christmas boycott of retailer Amazon, organized by a group called Amazon Anonymous, which pledged to spend nearly three million pounds with other retailers during Christmas.

Being a low wage worker, which so many young people are, affords you very few forms of workplace security: you are more replaceable to your employers, you have less experience to call upon, and you have fewer alternatives to fall back on should you need to. Zero hour contracts exponentially heighten this insecurity within the workplace, and make you even less likely to feel valued by your employers. Now the evidence confirms what many have long suspected: zero-hour contracts are an unacceptably insufficient form of employment. The recession and cost of living crisis are still very much aspects of the present for some, often along gender, geographical, and age lines. Young people are being punished for simply trying to work and secure their financial well-beings, whilst Amazon has been widely expected to make $23bn over the holidays alone. Happy New Year indeed…

The views expressed in this piece are those of the writer. This post is kindly supported by Scottish Friendly. Please do get in touch with your views or leave a comment below.

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