As capitalism continues its drive to reduce workers to utter penury and, worse, compliance in that drive, the number of workers on zero hours contracts has soared from 200,000 in 2010 to 1.8 million in 2015. Some 2.3 per cent of the 30 million-strong workforce are now afflicted by these contracts, and the trend shows no sign of easing.
Zero hours contracts, and the variants that offer fixed amounts such as 5, 10 or 25 hours – any number just so long as it is impossible to live on – are promoted by employers as “choice”.
These are contracts that tie a worker to an employer with no guarantee of any hours, and prevent that worker seeking additional work elsewhere. That’s not choice: it’s latter-day slavery, as are the contracts that may not tie workers to a particular employer but mean they have to work in one, two, three jobs to survive.
'How have workers been forced down so far? Is it that capitalists want to see just how far down they can push us?'
The Office for National Statistics has introduced some contradictory factors that mean you cannot compare like with like, preventing analysis. But it is clear that zero hours contracts hit workers of all ages between 25 and 65, particularly women, be they full-time or part-time. And in all occupations (see “Something for nothing”, page 9).
The net result is that there is no stable employment, permanent insecurity about where the next wage packet is coming from, fear in the workplace, a fragmentation in workers’ collective identity and a bullying, arrogant, triumphant management style.
How have workers been forced down so far? Is it that capitalists want to see just how far down they can push us? The truth is that there is no limit on what they will impose on us – if we accept it.
That’s what capitalism does. The system drives companies to seek profits. In Britain companies actually have a legal duty to make as much money for their shareholders as possible.
Couple zero hours contracts with payment of either the national minimum wage or the so-called “living wage” and you still arrive at the continuing depression of wages.
Despite all the talk, the “living wage” covers only around 30,000 workers in Britain. To put that into context, something over 920,000 workers are on the national minimum wage in London alone. The Living Wage Foundation philosophy is threadbare and its supporters are presenting a new mythology. It seeks to undermine the need for strong trade unions or even any trade union and it promotes a strategy for making a do-gooder employer the desired norm.
As Workers has already shown, both the national minimum wage and the living wage are calculated by assuming that workers on these rates will be receiving state benefits – indeed, around 60 per cent of workers in work claim benefit in some form or other.
The result is that the government is using taxation to fund massive hand-outs to employers. How massive? About £11 billion a year, said Citizens UK this April. And since workers are the main source of taxation revenue, companies are getting other workers to subsidise the wages they won’t pay. Worse, the low wages poverty culture has become ingrained in the workplace.
Employers have whole departments writing their socially acceptable, ethical, transparent, equality-guaranteed, independently audited, customer service public relations charters – to quote their terminology. What about us? The reality for all workers on zero hours contracts and the national minimum / living wage is low wages, long hours, total flexibility, total fragmentation, and non-union workplaces.
Workers will have to return to the days of the creation of trade unions, forged by a young working class whose very lives were threatened by the demands of capital. They joined together in conditions of great danger and secrecy, learning that when they fought together they could win. The lesson they learned will need to be learned again.