I read a review of a new book by Rachel Holmes which explores the life of Eleanor Marx at the weekend. It was interesting to read about her role in various strikes. I was struck by how the issues workers faced over a century ago have reappeared to haunt some in work today. Men used to stand at the dock gate waiting for a few hours work to be handed out by employers on a daily basis. Sometimes they might find 3 hours work, on another day 10 hours, and the next day nothing. Such insecurity left many in dire poverty with no hope of a secure future. The introduction of contracts which guarantee steady work, and a regular income, has had such a positive impact on all our lives , many of us take them for granted. However, as I drove into work this morning listening to the news, the fragility of the hard won workers rights many have fought for over centuries came into sharp focus as talk of ‘zero -hour’ contracts filled the airwaves.
To provide some kind of rationale for the use of this morale sapping innitiative (I use the word ‘innitiative’ loosely here) they are justified by linking them to those on benefits, one headline reading ‘Benefits risk to job seekers refusing zero-hours contracts’, which is sure to perk up the average Daily Mail and Express reader this morning.
However, the truth is zero-hours contracts are already widely in use. The Office of National Statistics suggest big companies in the UK use a total of 1.4 million zero-hour contracts (one of my younger family members has one). The reality of the increase in use of zero- hour contracts is that many peoples’ lives are blighted by terrible insecurity, not knowing how much they will earn from week to week. The care industry in particular regularly use such contracts.
Imagine living day to day, week to week, month to month, not knowing how much you might earn? Imagine the stress of not knowing if you will be able to afford the essentials of life; food, warmth shelter.
Supporters suggest they are a good thing, giving workers flexibility, which might be true if you are in a profession that has high earning potential and where you can afford to put some money aside for a rainy day. However, these contracts are usually used in low paid industries, like the care sector, where every day feels like a rainy day, where employment is often insecure due to government cuts in the public sector. So its’ a double ‘whammy’ for these employees, not only are they in a low paid job their future will be determined by factors beyond their control.
I would suggest, the security of a regular income outstrips the flexibility a zero-hours contract might bring.
We are developing our economy on individuals insecurity, which will ultimatley increase the inequalities that already exist, this is a very sad state of affairs.