by Stephanie Pride
CARE WORKERS, junior academics, mystery shoppers and agency staff… One thing they have in common is that many, if not most, are on zero hours contracts.
Far from being a new phenomenon, zero hours contracts have been around a long time but are only now receiving the scrutiny they deserve for shackling workers to insecure and low-paid employment with fewer rights than those defined as employees.
It is notoriously difficult to estimate the true number of people on such contracts – the STUC puts it at nearly 120,000 across Scotland, although this is based on an outdated figure from the Office for National Statistics, which now puts the number at 1.4 million across the UK. It is also believed that the number of people hired on contracts which do not guarantee a minimum number of hours has doubled over the past decade.
Not included in the statistics is the large number of people on highly dubious ‘self-employed’ contracts – many of them in sales and marketing, catalogue distribution and work-from-home jobs.
The advantage for those who provide such work is that there is no statutory minimum wage, no benefits and very few protections. One large employer, based in Scotland, routinely hands out contracts making workers liable to pay for access to equipment, to supply a ‘substitute’ when sick, take out their own personal indemnity insurance, indemnify the company against any action from HMRC and – much like a super-injunction – ensure the existence of the contract is kept a secret.
Although the zero-hours contract has no legal definition, European legislation broadly divides workers into three categories with different rights and responsibilities: employees, workers and the self-employed.
Most people on zero-hours contracts, like agency workers and the casually employed, fall into the category of ‘worker’. Strictly speaking, they are under no obligation to work for the employer and the employer is not obliged to provide work for them. However, they do have rights relating to pay, hours, health and safety and discrimination.
Sometimes it is hard to determine which category someone falls into, but there are four essential requirements for a worker to be an employee: payment for the work done; the employee does the work personally; control by the employer over what the worker does and when, where and how they do it; and mutual obligation.
Self-employed people only have the rights that are given by a contract, although they are also covered by discrimination law and protected by health and safety legislation.
In practice, the employer holds all the cards and there is often no acknowledgement of legislation like the European working time directive, which lays down rules like ensuring workers have a minimum of 11 hours break between their shifts. More savvy employers will ask staff to sign an opt-out agreement if they want to work at all.
Of course, the defining feature of a zero-hours contract is the worker is not guaranteed any work at all and the much vaunted ‘flexibility’ of the arrangement is all with the employer. Some add exclusivity clauses – requiring the worker not to take on other employment – and shifts can be taken away or added with the minimum of notice.
The precariousness of such employment, where it is all but impossible to prove discrimination when your hours at the boss’s whim, has given rise to the definition of a new category of worker – the Precariat, a term originally used in 1980s France to describe temporary and seasonal workers.
Today these are the workers, many of them women, recent immigrants and the very young, who don’t know what they’ll be earning from one week to the next, cannot make plans for things like childcare and find it all but impossible to access the appropriate level of benefits or tax credits, leaving them open to sanctions and periods without income.
‘Flexibility’ might be touted as a virtue, but these people’s landlords, billers and creditors do not share that attitude, plunging many into a debt spiral. However meagre, there is some predictability on benefits. However, the UK government is now saying jobseekers risk losing their benefits if they turn down certain zero-hours contracts without ‘good reason’.
In response to the consultation, Citizens Advice Scotland has highlighted the widespread misuse of zero hours contracts and the need to strengthen employment laws to give workers more rights including protection from unfair dismissal.
Under pressure, universities in Scotland are now starting to review their practices, with the Scottish University and College Union branding the widespread use of zero-hours contracts as “exploitative”. It said universities were “using the fierce competition for permanent jobs to create a no-rights culture for teachers and researchers”.
Unchecked, it is likely that this culture will spread, eroding the hard-won gains of organised labour and distorting the true employment picture.
One solution, put forward by Guy Standing, an academic and former ILO researcher, is to create new organisations rooted outside any single workplace and to adopt a basic citizen’s income, payable to all, which would enhance the bargaining power of people at the low end and actually increase the incentive to work.
The Scottish Socialist Party fights for a guaranteed minimum wage of £10 an hour for all employees and an end to all zero hours contracts. We consider zero hours contracts to be little more than unvarnished exploitation.
In April 2015, the STUC launched a new campaign – Better Than Zero – run by young people for young people, to take on the issue of insecure work, zero hours contracts and poverty pay.
This is a revised piece which was previously published in the Scottish Socialist Voice.