Less Than Zero Hours?

As the number of workers on ‘zero-hours’ contracts is estimated at over a million, new fees for employment tribunal claims put justice out of reach for many

A recent poll of employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimated the number of employees on ‘zero-hours contracts’ at over a million.

Such contracts mean that the employer is under no obligation to offer any work to the employee yet the employee is expected to be on call for any work that is forthcoming and, in some cases, may be prohibited from working elsewhere.

In the case of the employer / employee relationship, it appears that so-called flexibility only goes one way.  Neo-liberalism demands a flexible workforce subject to the beck and call of the employer, with secure jobs for life replaced by pseudo jobs rendering the employee a dispensable commodity.

The scope for

favouritism and

victimisation

without recourse

is huge

As one might expect, some of the largest low-wage, private sector employers such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Domino’s Pizza, JD Wetherspoons, Amazon, Sports Direct, Cineworld and Boots all use zero-hours contracts extensively.  But they are also used by Buckingham Palace, the National Trust, the Tate Galleries and various charities.

Even more surprisingly, they are also prevalent in the public sector, with a number of councils using them as a way to reduce costs in response to government cuts.  Unite the union estimates that 97% of councils are using zero-hours contracts for homecare services.

They keep the unemployment figures down too as those on such contracts are technically employed, even when zero-hours really does mean zero.

Of course the biggest disadvantage to employees is the constant insecurity – how can you be sure that you will get enough hours to pay your rent and bills at the end of the month?  Obtaining a mortgage and pension are a distant pipe dream.

While some employees on zero-hours contracts get sick pay and holiday pay, many do not, further exacerbating their insecurity.

Neo-liberalism demands

a flexible workforce

And what sort of a life is it when you spend your days waiting for the telephone to ring, unable to make plans in case you are called in for a shift that you cannot afford to turn down.

There are other issues too.  Why would an employer give extra hours to the worker who complains about health and safety when they could give them to the one who keeps their mouth shut?  The scope for favouritism and victimisation without recourse is huge.

Such contracts are also not amenable to the long-term progression of employees or to bringing out the best of them in the short-term.  When you are seen as expendable, is your employer really going to invest time and money in your training and development? In any event, are you going to stick around if a contract with guaranteed hours is offered to you elsewhere?

Unsurprisingly the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce are most likely to be subject to zero-hours contracts.  But it is not all minimum wage jobs; graduate jobs are also affected.  Although of course these days many graduates are forced to give their services for free as unpaid interns in order to stand a chance of getting a career in their chosen area.

There have already been several protests against Sports Direct and one is due to take place outside Sports Direct, Abington Street, Northampton on Saturday 10 August at 11am.

In addition, a protest against the use of zero-hours contracts by the London Borough of Camden has been called for Tuesday 13 August at 5.30pm outside Camden Town Hall, Judd St, London, WC1.

But if you thought that zero-hours contracts were bad enough, whatever you do, don’t get unfairly dismissed in Cameron’s Britain.

there is no legal aid

for employment cases

Further weakening the position of employees, the Coalition government have increased the minimum period of work necessary to claim unfair dismissal from one year to two years.  This applies to anyone employed on or after 6 April 2012.

So if after sticking out 23 months on your zero-hours contract you’re unfairly dismissed, that’s just tough luck.

Even if you have been there for over two years, unless you want to pay for the privilege you can forget taking your employer to an Employment Tribunal.  On 29 July 2013, a new fee system was introduced.  It will now cost you £250 to bring an unfair dismissal claim and a further £950 if it goes to a full hearing.  Unfortunately if you’ve just lost your job, you’re unlikely to have a spare £1,200 lying about.

While some people on low incomes can apply to have the fees remitted, there is no legal aid for employment cases.  So unless your union is representing you or you can afford to pay for a lawyer or you can persuade one to represent you for free, you’ll be representing yourself. 

In the case of the employer/

employee relationship,

it appears that so-called

flexibility only goes one way

Meanwhile your employer will either have their own in-house lawyer with extensive experience in such cases, or they are likely to instruct a specialist lawyer to represent them at the tribunal hearing, giving them a distinct advantage over you.

The idea that the contract of employment is anything other than one-sided is a right-wing myth.  Where one party holds all the cards, there can be no equality of bargaining power.

Likewise if you were told at school that if you kept your head down and worked hard, everything would be ok, you may have grown up to find this to be a cruel joke.

We like to believe that we are in charge of our fate and that hard work will see us through.  But the sad truth is that luck and privilege are the defining factors in this market economy.

Photo: Carl Byron Batson

 

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