At last! A proper assessment of the number of ‘zero hours’ contracts. After the ONS upgraded its estimate to 250 000 the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development now puts the figure at 1 million. Sufficiently high enough to make newspaper front pages, it raises a further question; particularly with today’s Guardian ( 06/07/13) reporting 90% of the McDonald’s workers employed this way, whether even this figure is too low?
Sports Direct attracted attention by disclosing that 20 000 of its staff were employed this way, but Buckingham Palace and the National Trust openly admit to using them, along with high street pharmacy chain Boots. Pub group JD Weatherspoon contracts 24 000 (80% of its workforce) using zero hours. Zero hours contracts are also increasingly common in health and in education where 35% of employers said they used them. Young workers and those over 50 are also more likely to be on them
Apart from trade unions and some charities, few people have unreservedly condemned them. Business Secretary Vince Cable defending the importance of a flexible workforce ‘but one that is treated fairly’ is conducting a ‘review’ -meanwhile Labour has called for a ‘public enquiry’. CIPD has also qualified its concerns by claiming that only 14% of workers in its survey complain employers do not give them enough work and that it shouldn’t be assumed that zero hours contracts are necessarily ‘bad’ –arguing that ‘if used appropriately’ they can play a ‘positive role’ allowing parents of young children, carers and students to fit work around their home lives.
There is little, or no truth in this argument. Unlike with normal contracts there are no minimum conditions for workers and few legal obligations for employers. Technically workers are entitled to holiday and sick pay, but it’s difficult to see how this can be enforced or amounts calculated. Many employers previously offered ‘flexitime’ –some still do. But here, it’s the employees that have options over how they complete their fixed hours contract.
The Guardian’s Larry Elliott has drawn parallels between zero hours contracts and Marx’s 19th century ‘reserve army of labour’ –he is right. But being part of a zero hours reserve army is in many respects even worse than the traditional ‘agency’ work that casualised workers previously depended on. Being contracted to an agency at least enables you to be directed to work for different employers when needed. On zero hours you can be ‘workless’, ‘payless’ but not technically ‘unemployed’.
Zero hours contracts, as Elliott also recognises, are products of their time. Claims about the need for, but also the advantages to be gained from, a new flexibility in the production process are a myth. These are arguments used by employers faced with falling profits and increasingly uncertain market conditions. The new contracts are also products of a period where the balance of power has moved against labour; real wages continue to fall and a fear about losing your job has reached unprecedented levels and where for many, a ‘Wonga economy’ becomes the only reality.
The increased use of zero hours contracts also intensifies the new types of division in the labour force, where the degree of insecurity and extent of ‘underworking’ becomes as significant as official numbers ‘employed’ and ‘unemployed’; but which continue to be used as a main economic indicator.