'Rebuilding workers' power'

Under an emboldened Tory government, the fight against zero hours contracts goes on

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As work is set to become even more precarious under a new Tory government, zero hours contracts have once again risen to the top of the agenda in the fight for decent jobs.


The TUC will on Monday (January 13) convene a summit on zero hours contracts at its headquarters in London, with several headline speakers including Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson and Julian Richer, founder of home entertainment retailer Richer Sounds.


Renowned journalist Ros Wynne-Jones will chair the event, which brings together voices from the trade union movement, the voluntary sector and business to discuss campaigning to end zero hours contracts and the exploitation it engenders.


Zero hours and mental health

Zero hours contracts, where bosses are not obliged to give their employees minimum working hours, have most recently been placed in the spotlight after a new study highlighted on Monday (January 13) by the London School of Economics (LSE) found a strong link between underemployment and psychological distress.


The researchers said their analysis “revealed that the combination of working less than 30 hours per week and preferring to work more hours was associated with the greatest and most consistent increases in psychological distress”.


Public opinion has fallen firmly against zero hours contracts – a poll conducted just last month found that two-thirds of voters say they want the new Boris Johnson-led Tory government to ban these exploitative work contracts altogether.


Business as usual?

In response to wide-spread criticism of zero-hours contracts, Julian Richer, founder of home entertainment retailer Richer Sounds, has long advocated for a ban on zero-hours contracts and has shown that successful business and fair working practices can go hand-in-hand.


Last year, Richer announced that he would be transferring a 60 per cent stake in his company – said to be worth £3.5m – to an employee ownership trust. Each of the retailer’s 531 employees, excluding executive directors, will also as part of the announcement receive a bonus of £1,000 for each year they’ve worked – the average bonus will be worth £8,000.


Richer Sounds is also one of the few companies in existence whose gender pay gap favours women.


Commenting ahead of tonight’s TUC event where he will be speaking, Richer said, “As an employer I care passionately about my colleagues. And I can’t imagine anything more likely to cause misery than not knowing day-to-day whether they will have enough money for food or rent.


“These evil ways of exploiting people at work must be banned – as indeed they are in the great majority of European countries. If we can’t give working people basic security, we should be ashamed.”


Zero hours ban call

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady agreed as she highlighted the government’s failure to tackle insecure work.


“The government has promised new laws on workers’ rights,” she noted. “But the current proposals for a ‘right to request’ predictable hours will achieve nothing. Ireland has shown the way by banning zero-hours contracts. Britain must do the same.


“This isn’t just about doing the right thing for working people. It’s about supporting good employers too. It’s not fair if bad employers undercut them with business models based on the exploitation of workers.”


Vital campaigning 

Unite Hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson, who will also speak at tonight’s event, said that while Unite continues to lobby for a change in the law to ban zero hours contracts, unions can also campaign effectively against them in the workplace through grassroots organising.


“Unite Hospitality is combining the knowledge and skills of precarious workers and the dynamic tactics of new social movements with the collective clout of the trade union movement in order to rebuild workers’ power in hospitality,” Simpson explained to UniteLive ahead of the TUC event.


He highlighted a number of campaigns Unite Hospitality has helped develop from the ground-up alongside members, including the Fair Fringe campaign, which has successfully sought to improve pay and conditions for workers at the Fringe festival in Edinburgh.


The Better than Zero campaign, supported by several trade unions in Scotland including Unite, has organised young workers in the fight against zero hours contracts and other exploitative work arrangements.


Simpson gave the example of G1, Scotland’s biggest hospitality employer, which agreed to end its use of zero-hours contracts and other conditions after workers mobilised and protested with help from the Better than Zero campaign.


“At the heart of Unite’s organising in the hospitality sector is education and mobilisation,” Simpson said. “We educate workers about their rights in order to undermine the notion that their socio-economic power is pre-determined and unmoveable. And we mobilise workers by nurturing their confidence to challenge the unfettered power of their employers alongside their colleagues.”


It’s this sort of grassroots campaigning that will be vital in the years ahead as Unite continues to lobby for a total ban on zero-hours contracts.


“While fighting to end zero-hours contracts through legislation is a worthy goal and one that we must continue to pursue, we cannot wait for the government, especially one which now enjoys a large Tory majority, to change its mind,” he said. “There are far too many workers suffering the indignity of insecure work and they need our support now. Organising sectors like hospitality where union density is low and exploitation is high must be at the top of our agenda as we begin a new decade.”


Find out more about the Zero in on Zero Hours TUC event and how you can attend here.


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