Zero Tollerence

Posted: October 3, 2013 in UK, Worker's Rights

Marcus: Hey do you fancy doing something Thursday night?
Zahra: Sounds good, but I’m not sure if I will get any hours at work this week.
Marcus: OK well let me know and we will sort something out.

A short conversation that is all too indicative of the current state of life for the working class as figures reveal that more than 1 million British workers could be employed on zero-hours contracts. From retail chains like Sports Direct all the way up to Buckingham Palace, workers face little option than to take on contracts that offer them no holiday or sick pay and often little work. Though this style of contract isn’t new it has recently become a focus of controversy with retailer Sports Direct, who employ 20,000 of their 23,000 staff on such contracts, at the centre of the storm. Likewise pub group J D Wetherspoon has 80% of its workforce, 24,000 staff, on zero-hours contracts.

Though recent contention has led to business secretary Vince Cable conducting a review of zero-hours contracts it has been criticised as being “totally inadequate” by the Labour opposition. Vidhya Alakeson, deputy chief executive of the think tank the Resolution Foundation added that “If it’s true that there are in the region of 1 million people on zero-hours contracts, then that would be a substantial portion of the workforce – this could no longer be dismissed as an issue affecting only a tiny minority. The new estimate underlines the urgent need for a deep and thorough review of zero-hours by the government, which takes into account not only the scale of the problem, but the effect these contracts have on workers’ employment rights, earning capacity and personal well-being.” However despite Cable’s oppositional talk, thousands of Londoners are employed by Labour councils on zero-hours contracts. The situation is not much better in the Green Party, after calling for a ban on zero-hours contracts; it was found that they too saw fit to use them themselves, employing up to 1,000 people on casual contracts.

Opposition to these contracts has not just come from think tanks and politicians. Trade unions and activist groups like ‘Zero Tolerance to Zero Hours’ have also been a key part of the fight back against measures that enable employers to keep their profit high by cutting staff benefits. Dave Prentis, general secretary of the trade union Unison, said that “The vast majority of workers are only on these contracts because they have no choice. They may give flexibility to a few, but the balance of power favours the employers and makes it hard for workers to complain.” Also the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union – who have strong anti-workfare policies – are currently taking industrial action at Hovis after agency workers on zero-hour contracts were brought in to replace workers previously made redundant.

The past thirty years in Britain has see a sharp shift towards neo-liberal politics and social policy that has dramatically changed the lives of the working class both in how they are viewed and how they survive. Bruised by the destruction of industry that took place under the Thatcher regime their search for work has been further marred by an ever diminishing public sector. However, despite the sudden recent interest in precarious labour, both in the media and academically, the need for precarity under capitalism is far from a new development. If we were to look at the 1980s we would see Dockers queuing up each morning in the hope of a day’s work. Similarly the agrarian workers of early modern England experience an inconsistent demand for their labour. Indeed throughout the history of capitalist society sections of the working class have been characterised by a degree of job insecurity, with women and people of colour tending to carry out the bulk of precarious work. American sociologist and professor at Yale University Immanuel Wallerstein even claims that the overseas exploitation of semi-proletarians, members of a peasent class who spends part of their year as a wage worker in a town, as the main motive of colonialism.

So why the sudden focus? Well, though precarious labour is nothing new employers both in the public and the private sectors have massively increased the number of agency staff and staff on temporary or zero-hours contracts over the past twenty years. Between 1992 and 2001 employment agencies tripled their share of employment. In fact 27% of the healthcare sector, 48% of the hotels, catering and leisure industries and 35% of the education sector are made up of employers using zero-hours contracts. With universities and colleges being more than twice as likely to employ staff on zero-hours contracts as other workplaces.

Academic interest in changes in class composition during the neo-liberal period has picked up on the increasing levels of precarity and its need for analysis. One of the leading theorists around this is Guy Standing, a professor at Bath University, who has analysed the theory of what he calls ‘the precariat’. Standing sees the precariat as a new emerging social class which is composed of people suffering from precarity, a condition which stems from a lack of predictability or security affecting material or psychological welfare – though it is a defining factor of the working class or proletariat to rely solely on the selling of their own labour in order to live this classification specifically refers to the condition of intermittent or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence.

The effects on the working class have even been mentioned by Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, who said: “The government’s refusal to address the growing scandal of zero-hours contracts is creating a sub-class of insecure and low-paid employment.” However, simply inventing a new class is not necessarily the answer, as anyone who questioned their status as an emergent service worker should agree. Though attempts have been made to define the precariat as a class of its own these have often been imprecise, defined in negative terms and crucially fail to outline the principles of its reproduction. However what can be said with confidence is that during the neoliberal period there have been real transformations in both the economy and in class structure. The working class has certainly become more stratified, with increasing variety in the amount and type of work undertaken by the working class. The levels of precarity and insecurity have also increased during this period, something which affects the lowest strata of the working class most. So we must either understand that the working class is by its very nature precarious, and so there is no need for a new classification. Our focus should be on the resistance we provide to the division through stratification and the increasing precarity that brings.

It has long been that the left has place too much of their focus on the public sector as a longed for potential hot bed of industrial action. However in doing so a huge failure is maintained. The failure to organise in unorganised workplaces, an area in which the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW) have shown great strength, mounting successful campaigns with workers at Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Pret A Manger. With the changes that have occurred within the composition of the working class, more than ever this focus leaves too little attention spared for what can too happen in the most unimaginable of places. We need only look at the recent waves of resistance across the US fast food industry, where earlier this month thousands of workers in cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit took to the streets, many wearing red “Fight for 15” T-shirts – a reference to the popular call for a $15 (£9.70) hourly wage, almost double the current minimum. It is action like this as well as the organisation of cleaning staff in John Lewis and London Metropolitan University or the launch of the Pop-Up union at the University of Sussex that show where real potential now lies. Some may say where it always has with the proles.

This article can also be found in The Exchange magazine. A joint publication between the AntiCapitalist Initiative, Socialist Resistance and the International Socialist Network.

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