Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a human resources consultancy firm, attempts to put a positive spin on the proliferation of zero-hours contacts.
The report concludes that employers mainly use zero-hours contracts for flexibility, and claims that most workers are satisfied with this arrangement as it provides flexibility for them as well. It suggests that, on the whole, if there is an issue surrounding zero-hours contracts, it is to do with the way they are managed, rather than the type of contract itself.
Why would workers report being “satisfied” with zero-hours contracts? For many workers, zero-hours contracts are the only option if they need a more flexible working arrangement (to cater for childcare responsibilities, for example). So workers’ “satisfaction” with zero-hours contracts may only be in contrast to the alternative of not being able to work at all.
The report states that employers say they want a flexible workforce to meet fluctuations in demand. What they really mean is they want flexibility from their workforce without having to pay a decent wage for it. Things like flexi-time, annual hours, and part-time contracts could also be used to achieve flexibility, but none of these serve the conveniences of the employer as much as zero-hours contracts, where maximum expense and inconvenience is off-loaded onto workers. According to the report, 20% of bosses say zero-hours contracts are part of a “broader strategy to keep wage costs down”, and 28% use them to “provide cost-efficiency”.
The arbitration service ACAS suggests that zero-hours contracts should be used to meet short-term staffing needs, but routinely, entire workforces are employed on a zero-hours basis. This can mean staff are left competing for shifts, causing insecurity that stresses workers, but stretches the profit margin for their bosses. Cultivating competition and individualism in this way weakens the bonds of co-operation and solidarity that are essential for building the foundations of workplace organisation and struggle. Anyone found to be a “bad apple”, a dissenter, or suspected of getting ideas about class struggle, can easily be squeezed off the rota at the manager’s convenience.
As use of zero-hours contracts becomes commonplace, young and inexperienced workers will have learned not to question them, because they have never had a better deal. Zero-hours contracts are most common in the low-wage economy where their use is part of a toolkit of stingy and oppressive policies.
Socialists can raise awareness of how concessions are won by highlighting victories like the Hovis bakery strike in the summer, when workers forced their employer to put them on permanent contracts with optional overtime and secured a commitment to use zero-hours contracts only as a last resort.
Workers will be intimidated by their hostile environment and worry about being shunted off the books if they kick up a fuss. Capitalism has a neverending creativity for finding ways to squeeze, drain, and exploit people for profit. Precarious workers must be equally creative in finding ways to organise. We can help empower them by providing political and material solidarity with their attempts to organise, suggesting strategies and tactics, and linking them up with other groups of workers
Let the zero-hours workforce know there is a better deal out there for them if they fight! Support their struggles and push the bosses and managers back.