Zeros or Heroes

Student Amy Edwards joins us for her first Youthview to survey the politics of Zero Hour Contracts

The proliferation of Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs) in today’s workplaces is reaching ‘epidemic’ levels and continues to rise. Questions as the effects of these exploitative ZHCs on young people is unavoidable, yet the extent of their impact upon young people remains unexplored. Studies suggest that 16-24s are the hardest hit by this trend, as nearly half of employers in the tourism and hospitality industries – sectors which many young people depend on for full and part-time work – are using ZHCs on a massive scale.

In the run up to May, Labour seems to be the only party taking the issue of ZHC seriously. With regard to jobs and employment, the LibDems target the aforementioned pay issues for apprentices in their election manifesto, vowing to raise pay rates by £1 an hour for the lowest paid apprentices. The Tories, on the other hand centre their  employment policy on the creation of three million more apprenticeships funded by further benefit cuts, seemingly ignoring the scourge of ZHCs.

Despite being the only party to raise the issue of ZHCs, Labour’s lack of a detailed position is symptomatic of parliament’s indifference towards the plight of those on ZHCs. The Commons chamber was comparatively empty at the reading of Ian Mearns MP’s Zero Hour Contracts Bill (in stark contrast to a full chamber for the debate over an 11% salary increase for MPs, see link one). Mearns’ Bill takes some big steps in the right direction, proposing to eliminate employer exclusivity clauses in ZHCs, give ‘reasonable’ notice upon shift cancellation, provide full pay when shifts are cancelled with less than 72 hours’ notice, and give workers employed for 12 weeks a fixed-hour contract.

Although an improvement on Labour’s plans (that those on ZHCs should get a fixed-hour contract if they had worked regularly for the same employer for a year) the Bill proposes to eliminate ZHCs only ‘where they exploit people’ simply aren’t enough to combat the negative impact these contracts have on the financial and psychological well-being of young (as well as older) people.  The most prolific users of ZHCs are large companies and, with this, getting a contract requires a multi-stage application and selection process that makes landing a job no easy task. The upper hand this gives prospective employers is obvious. Employers are able to tie employees to their company yet provide no guarantee of hours or stable income. Why are large companies allowed to get away with providing contracts that only work in the favour of the employer?

It is not only companies like the dreaded Sports Direct that have come under fire for their use of ZHCs. Universities’ use of graduate student teachers on ZHCs and the draconian employment practices of companies in the home care industry both open new fronts to this problem. However, both have received comparatively little attention in the press.

The plight of graduate teachers in higher education is another example of how young people’s economic needs are not being taken seriously. Despite paying £9000 per annum some universities only spend an astonishing £50 of this on the teaching on an 11-week module per student. Many postgrad student teachers are paid for just three hours work a week, a rate of pay that doesn’t even include the weekly compulsory hour spent in the lecture. With such widespread exploitation in the academic sector going largely unnoticed, young people are once again being hit hard by ZHCs. This begs the obvious question: how much value for money is the £9000 tuition fee?

ZHCs in the private care industry raise similar issues. As in most cases workers are only paid for the time spent with clients and not time spent travelling between them, attending meetings with the main office and handing in timesheets. Training and ‘probation’ periods often also go unpaid, with these ranging from one to twelve weeks in some extreme cases. In both cases, evasive methods of pay and calculation of hours result in rates of pay significantly below the minimum and living wage rates for workers in these industries that have large numbers of young workers.

ZHCs have been used as a superficial remedy to push to down unemployment rates and are another symptom of the Conservatives’ failure to effect a ‘balanced recovery that works for all’. A focus on beating unemployment statistics must be balanced by a plan to create meaningful employment opportunities. In centring their employment policy on scarce apprenticeships and on exploitative pay and work, it is clear that this government doesn’t care a great deal about today’s youth or the issues that blight young people. We can only hope Labour can put their money where their mouth is on ZHCs if they win in May.

This article appeared in CHARTIST 273 (March/April 2015).

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