Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) - Article - From Zero Hour Contracts to no Contracts

The number of UK workers on zero-hour contracts has risen 20% in a year to more than 900,000 (GUARDIAN, 9th September 2016). Insecure employment has now become a fact of life for the working class. Most zero-hours contracts are found in the retail industry, restaurants, leisure companies and hotels where wages are generally low anyway and it is difficult for workers to form themselves into effective trade unions.

Marx commented that capitalism prefers piecework: naturally, as this system makes workers sweat harder, and it's easier for the shop-floor managers to re-set daily the tasks of each worker to prevent them building up sufficient speed, so their weekly pay never rose to the level they hoped for.

But 'zero hours' is the best system of all. That was the system used in the London and other docks where the workforce was casual, and dependent on favours from the foremen - most workers who turned up seeking work did not get work. That system lasted until the post-war Labour government got rid of it because of the shortage of labour and industrial action tipped the balance temporarily in favour of the dockers. Decades later, containerisation was brought in with an Australian management system which effectively de-unionised the work-force. London’s dockland became valuable real estate, a playground for the rich, and the same process has been followed on other major ports, such as Bristol and Liverpool, and in other countries.

Zero-hours contracts for the casual labour-force is back with a vengeance: for example, hairdressers for some decades have had a system where a girl will rent a place in a salon and they will phone her if she's needed (she's on call but unpaid unless they get her in). And the couriers and mini-cab trade - including especially Uber - also have large numbers of workers available, unpaid unless and until a job comes up.

The market research and opinion polls companies have always operated this way. To make a living their workers could be on the books of maybe 9-10 companies, with more or less regular jobs from 3-4 firms, while others were only occasionally active .If a worker had an accident, sprained ankle, broken wrist and so on - this meant possible disaster financially.

The building industry also uses a semi-casual workforce - as they did when Robert Tressell wrote of "THE RAGGED-TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS", 100 years ago. This writer remembers in the mid-1970s waiting outside a public house in London with other labourers waiting for vans to pull up and take men to building sites around London. There were always more labourers than space on the vans. Building labourers from Kosovo, Romania and the Baltic countries have now replaced Irish labourers waiting at dawn on street corners for the appearance of the white van and potential work.

Agriculture too relies nowadays on the most vulnerable workers of all - “illegal” migrants, hired through unscrupulous gang-masters.

Add to these, the new industry of privately run ‘care homes’ and provision of carers for the disabled, sick and elderly, also relies on a casual and underpaid labour force, paid on hourly rates but again on the ‘zero-hours’ basis, their incomes being as precarious as that of any other ‘casual’ labourer.

What do all these 'industries' have in common? Almost all have no trade unions. If the workers try to get Trade Union representation, many of these firms operate a blacklist - and use this as a way to enforce discipline over hours and wages.

A zero-hours contract is defined by the Office for National Statistics as a contract that does not offer guaranteed hours of work. TUC studies have shown that an average worker earns 50% more than those on zero-hour contracts.

Zero-hours contracts also by-pass minimum wage legislation. John Philpot, director of the Jobs Economist consultancy said:

People employed on zero-hours contracts are only entitled to the minimum wage for the hours they actually work and receive nothing when ‘on call’.

Employers and their politicians egregiously defend these contracts claiming that they give flexibility to some workers but as the general secretary Frances O’Grady, Secretary General of the TUC pointed out:

It is very easy for politicians and employers to talk about the flexibility these contracts offer. But they are not the ones living at the sharp end of the labour market. If you don’t know how much work you will have from one day to the next, paying the bills and arranging things like childcare can be a nightmare

And the union Unite stated:

Employers use zero-hours contracts to cut wages, avoid holiday pay, pensions, and other benefits enjoyed by employees and agency staff. Workers are also unable to take on other work, as they are obliged to be available for work at the whim of the employer. And with the high level of insecurity comes the risk of bullying, harassment and stress http://www.unitetheunion.org/campaigning/saynotozerohourscontracts/

Zero-Hours contracts first became popular in the late 1980s and 1990s as a way of improving labour market flexibility and reducing business costs for employers. However, there were many reports of workers being asked to remain physically present on the premises, available to work if their services were required – in work, but unpaid unless a job came available.

The last Labour government outlawed this form of abuse as part of the National Minimum Wage Act in 1998 but still allowed the practice of zero-hours contracts to continue.

Tony Blair, at the Labour Party’s 1995 Brighton Conference pledged that Labour would end the practice of zero-hours contracts. But it never happened because when in government it was in favour of ‘flexible’ labour markets which reflected employers’ interests. 80 or so Labour MPs have used zero-hours contracts for the purpose of employing workers, as have many Labour Councils and ‘progressive’ papers like THE GUARDIAN.

A Channel 4 documentary, broadcast on 1 August 2013, employed secret cameras in Amazon UK's Rugeley warehouse to document worker abuses. It concluded that Amazon used "controversial" zero-hour contracts as a tool to reprimand staff, and were "tagging" employees with GPS and subjecting them to harsh working conditions.

The problem with the TUC and unions like Unite is that they take labour contracts as a given. Unions see nothing wrong with labour contracts between workers and employers as long as they are “fair and equitable”. But how can there be ‘fairness’ or ‘equitability’ in the relationship between capital and wage-labour. Where there is wage and salary slavery, it does not matter whether it is the loose zero-hours contract or the more sophisticated ones found in full-employment.

What needs to be challenged is the existence of a labour market, the buying and selling of a workers’ labour power and the ability of employers to buy labour power because, as a class of capitalists, they have monopoly ownership over the means of production and distribution.

Workers never agreed entering into contracts. Historically workers were forced into the labour market or starve. There is nothing natural about having to work for a wage and salary. It is a social practice associated with capitalism.

As mostly defensive organisations trade unions have to struggle daily against the encroachment of capital and the intensity and extent of class exploitation. They have no choice while capitalism exists.

Yet “exploitation” being associated with zero-hours is, in fact, is a misuse of the word.

All workers are exploited whether they are on zero-hours contracts or not. Workers sell their ability to work to capitalists at its value. They are put to work to produce commodities which are the property of the capitalist.

The value of labour power is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour embodied in what workers and their families need for subsistence. Say it is five hours of labour time of a contracted seven hours day. The workers still has to work a further two hours for free; that is surplus unpaid labour or surplus value. And this is the source of the capitalists’ profits. This is how exploitation takes place under capitalism.

While workers are degraded in zero-hours contracts, forced into the loneliness and precarious living of self-employment, or working hours for ‘free’ as unpaid over-time on the train or when getting home from work as many in the City do, they all belong to the same class and are all exploited in the Marxian sense of the word.

One thing socialists can say is that in a socialist society, without the buying and selling of labour-power, people will be able to bring up their children, meet with friends, and act socially without their time being imprisoned within labour markets. Stress and bullying will not be associated with work. Work in socialism will be enjoyable, something to be looked forward to rather than something repellent and unpleasant.

Under capitalism, human time is controlled time. In socialism work will be just something we do because we will want to do it, not because we have to. Work will be enjoyable like reading a book to your grandchildren, walking alongside a river bank or singing in a choir. And work will be a co-cooperative and social activity. Let the machines and robots do the drudgery human existence should be something to be enjoyed.

Instead of wanting to get rid of zero-hours contracts workers should be consciously, democratically and politically organising as socialists to get rid of labour contracts along with labour markets and the wages system. That means abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk