Once thought to be a passing trend born of the financial crisis 10 years ago, zero hours contracts — where workers don’t know when or even if they’ll be working from one day to the next — now look set to become a permanent feature of the economy.
As the government today trumpeted the latest unemployment figures, showing that the number of people in work has reached an all-time high, it failed to publicise an inconvenient truth — that while far more people are indeed in work, a significant portion of them are on insecure contracts barely able to make ends meet.
The number of people now on zero hours contracts has risen to a record high of 905,000 — a huge 13 per cent jump from the same time period last year, when just over 800,000 people were on zero-hours contracts.
While the government and employers offering zero-hours contracts often tout the idea that these work arrangements offer ‘flexibility’, it’s often only a one-way street – bosses can hire and effectively fire at will, while workers don’t know whether they’ll be working from one day to the next or how many hours they’ll get, if any.
UNITElive today (March 15) spoke to James*, a restaurant worker who was once on a zero-hours contract in a job as a kitchen porter.
For a long time, James* was offered nearly full-time hours and became dependent on the job for his income.
‘It was mental’
“Then suddenly — for no reason at all — my boss took away all my hours,” James told UNITElive. “It was mental. I went from earning enough just to survive to having no income at all. My boss didn’t given any explanation, but I was on a zero-hours contract — she didn’t have to.”
Not only do zero-hours contracts take a huge toll on those who struggle to get by on them, they’re also a massive cost to taxpayers.
A TUC analysis published today (March 15) found that zero-hours contracts cost the exchequer nearly £2bn a year. This is because zero hours workers – who earn on average a third less per hour than the average employee – pay less tax, less national insurance and are more reliant on tax credits.
“Zero-hours contracts allow bosses to treat workers like disposable labour,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady today (March 15).
“If you’re on a zero-hours contract you have no guarantee of work from one day to another. Put a foot wrong and you can be let go in a heartbeat. Turn down a shift because your kid’s sick and you can be left with little or no work.
“Zero-hours contracts can be a nightmare to plan your life around. And are a huge drain on the public finances.
“That’s why employment law needs dragging into the 21st century,” she added. “Far too many workers do not have the power to challenge bad working conditions.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey agreed.
“For many the fall in unemployment is good news, but scratch the surface and we see a world of work which is becoming increasingly insecure for a growing number of people,” he said.
“With record numbers of people on zero hours contracts, the experience of not knowing if you’ve earned enough to pay the bills has become the unacceptable norm for too many families.”
Another TUC analysis last month found that pervasiveness of insecure work goes well beyond zero hours contracts.
It found that the total number of people in insecure work — which the TUC defined as seasonal, casual, temporary or agency workers, or those on zero-hours contracts as well as low-paid self-employed workers — is now an astounding 3m.
That’s one in 10 in the UK workforce.
More unionised jobs
Unite believes that the best way to tackle the growing scourge of insecure work is through legislation against insecure work contracts, enhanced workers’ rights and more unionised jobs, which always offer better pay and security.
These aims become ever more urgent as Brexit looms.
“The job insecurity that we’ve seen grow under the coalition government threatens to be turbocharged post-Brexit if we aren’t careful,” explained Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner.
“Strengthening UK workers’ rights – with a renewed emphasis on unionised jobs and on sector-level collective bargaining – is a much better, more sustainable way of growing the economy long-term than slashing and burning wages and employment protections.
“Unionised workers have stronger job security and higher wages, which helps power the economy with their consumer spending power,” Turner added.
“Let’s make the UK the envy of the world in the way it treats its workers – the government can make good on this goal by taking immediate steps such as, for example, beefing up enforcement to crack down on bad bosses, supporting trade unions instead of seeing us as the enemy within, and outlawing zero-hours contracts the way New Zealand did last year.”
“People didn’t vote to the leave the European Union to become the sweatshop of Europe,” he said. “The UK government must act to tackle bogus self-employment and follow the example of its New Zealand counterparts by outlawing zero hours contracts. If we are to build an economy based on decent, secure jobs then insecure working must end.”
This week Unite is urging everyone to join us in our fight against insecure work by supporting our call for the government to legislate against unfair tipping practices.
Restaurant and pub workers make up the largest increase in insecure work since 2011. The number of waiters on insecure contracts has more than doubled over that time, leaving 1 in 4 workers in the sector stuck in insecure work. Tips for these workers are lifeline — help them by signing our petition here.
*Name changed to protect identity.