Imagine being a single parent struggling on benefits. You look long and hard for some sort of stable job – anything that will pay the bills and feed your child. You’re finally hired. It’s on a zero hours contract, but no matter. At least it’s something.
Kelly, this young woman’s father, recalls how overjoyed his daughter was to finally be given the opportunity to get back on her feet.
“She was so happy when she first got the job; so over the moon,” Kelly explains. “She was given a certain number of hours every week while she was in training to be a health worker.
“But when she completed her training, they almost stopped giving her any hours – three hours here, three hours there.
“They would call her one day and ask if she could come in the next day. As a single parent, my daughter would tell them, ‘Let me just see if my father can look after his granddaughter.’ Then they’d text her back and tell her not to bother, that they’ve found someone else.”
Now, Kelly says, his daughter is completely distraught.
“She wanted so badly to get off unemployment benefits; she wanted to work so she could pay her own bills,” he explains.
“But they’ve put her in a position where she doesn’t know whether she’s working or not working. I can’t believe an organisation can behave in this way to people. And we allow it to happen. It’s just crazy.”
Kelly was one of the many people who called in to BBC Radio 5 this morning (April 1) to tell their personal stories about life on a zero hours contract – an exploitative work arrangement that’s exploded in popularity under the coalition government’s watch.
Now, it is estimated that there 1.8m people on such contracts. And figures indicate that these contracts are being used on an increasingly exponential scale – of the new jobs created over the past year, one in seven have been zero hours jobs.
In response to what Ed Miliband called an “epidemic” of zero hours contracts, Labour announced today (April 1) that, if elected, it would take decisive action to stop this epidemic.
The party has committed to a ban of the exploitative contracts, and will guarantee anyone working regular hours for 12 weeks the right to a regular contract.
Labour will also give workers on zero-hours contracts new legal rights that will bar employers from forcing workers to be available at all hours. They will likewise prohibit the common practice of cancelling shifts at short notice without compensation.
It’s just the sort of measure that would help Steven’s son, who lives in Wigan and works in a meat-packing factory on a zero hours contract.
Steven explains what his son — who was made redundant years ago and has struggled to find regular work since — is put through on a daily basis.
“He doesn’t drive, so he has to wake up at half past 3 in the morning, walk three quarters of an hour to the other side of Wigan to catch a bus so he’s at the factory at 6,” Steven says.
“He gets there and they say ‘Oh sorry, we should have rung you up, there’s no work today.’
Steven, who has just now retired, calls his son’s situation “disgraceful”.
“I would never want to start my working career now in this day and age,” Steven adds.
Impossible to live
But John, a caterer, has no other option – working in Cameron’s day and age of insecure work and poverty pay is his only choice.
“You don’t know how much money you’re going to earn,” he told BBC Radio 5 this morning. “You see your rota for the week – it’s 30 hours and you think, ‘Yeah I can get by on that.’
“And then you end up getting only 25 hours after you get quarter hours, half hours lopped off here and there.
John explains just how impossible it is to live on a zero hours contract.
“You just can’t budget to pay your bills up all the way to the next month,” he says. “I can’t say to the local authority, ‘I’m only going to be able to pay you 90 of the 105 pound of council tax because I’ve lost a few hours at work.’ They’re not interested.”
Linda*, a council worker on a zero hours contract, explains how even the simplest choices become unbearable while living in the nightmarish limbo of irregular hours.
“My oven blew up yesterday and I had to think long and hard about buying a new one,” she said, not knowing whether next month’s earnings would be enough to cover her basic expenses.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey condemned the suffering that so many millions of workers are put through under such exploitative work arrangements.
“Zero hours contracts mean misery for workers and their families, stuck on this hand-to-mouth existence, not knowing from one week to next whether there’ll be any work , let alone enough to cover the bills,” he said.
“This insecurity has exploded on David Cameron’s watch where from social care to high street big names we have an economy built on shaky jobs and chronic low pay,” he added. “This is not an economic plan to be proud of but economic pain to be ashamed of.”
Still, McCluskey argued that today’s news of Labour’s clampdown on zero hours contracts meant that, on the eve of a general election, there’s still hope.
“Labour is absolutely right to take action against insecure work,” he said. “Millions of families just getting by will at last see someone on their side, and a Labour Party determined to build an economy where we can all reap the rewards.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity