Working class families are currently facing a three pronged attack on their employment rights. First workfare was introduced by a the Labour government as a tool to force unemployed people into working for their benefits. It richly rewards large corporations who no longer have to pay many of their workforce. Next came the dismantling of the benefits system in an effort to push everyone who needs support to survive to accept less in the form of Universal Credit. And now the very same companies which have benefited from workfare are pushing zerohour contracts onto the few employees they still pay.
A zerohour contract states that, whilst the employee must be available to work at all times, they are not guaranteed any work. If they say no to any work offered (even if it’s at twenty minutes notice) they will be breaking their contract, and so they can be disciplined or even fired. On the other hand, the employer has no obligation whatsoever towards the employee – if they don’t want to provide work they don’t have to. They can retain employees without paying them any money whatsoever for months on end. In recent months JD Sports has been highlighted as one of the many large companies who are exploiting their workers in this way, but there are many others.
Of course, the flexibility of zerohours contracts may suit some workers who want occasional earnings. It is very clear, however, that this flexibility favours businesses over workers. It means that businesses no longer need to make expensive redundancies in the lean times which, perhaps coincidentally, also makes government employment statistics look much more favourable. After all, even if someone hasn’t worked for weeks, if they are engaged on a zero-hours contract they are not technically unemployed, and nor are they eligible for Job Seekers Allowance.
The introduction of Universal Credit, in addition to the ever growing restrictions on trade unions, means that the constant attack on our rights as workers is growing every day. We are being asked now, more than ever before, to fight amongst each other for crumbs as real jobs which can support families disappear and fake jobs which can support no one take their place. Over the last few months workers at JD sports have been fighting against Zero Hour contracts, and as more and more companies begin to implement this abusive employment system other workers will begin to fight back. They will be able to look to employees at Hovis who have successfully taken strike action to beat back zerohour contracts. They’ve shown that it’s possible to fight and it’s possible to win. What employers like the bosses at Hovis fear most is not bad publicity, it’s the anger that’s building on their shop floors. There is potential for working class traditions – unions, strikes and solidarity – to assert themselves powerfully as employees get a feel for their own strength.