Comment | Zero Hours, Zero Tolerance

Controversial “zero hour contracts” are fast becoming popular with employers in order to make businesses more cost effective.  In any other argument (except sexism of course), I would try to remain impartial and unbiased. However, as an employee in the retail industry for the last seven years, and now as a first year student, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how this particular contract would benefit me in any such way.

It has been pointed out by Mary Reid of the Liberal Democrats that these contracts work efficiently for staff who are working on a temporary basis (supply teachers, care workers, etc.). Having the ability to come and go as you please works well for those who are not looking to settle down in full-time employment, or to an extent students who are looking to transfer from city to city and work term time. Flexibility is a big draw when signing a zero hour contract, and for certain individuals, I am sure that this innovative way of working means that life has become distinctly easier. Days off can be planned, holidays are no issue and overtime is much easier to come about. The scheme is not completely bleak.

However, I’m very sure Mary Reid isn’t employed on a zero hour contract.

Effectively, a zero hour contract means no stability, no holiday or sick pay, and those calls we all dread: the ones where your place of work asks you to come in an hour before they need you (inconvenient if you haven’t even showered). The worst thing is, you are contractually bound to say yes. How anyone can plan a life around these conditions is a mystery to me. Not only does it mean that wages are dramatically decreased – some weeks there won’t even be a pay check – but the standard benefits we have come to expect from living in Britain have all but vanished.

It is all well and good for the politicians and industry bigwigs to extol the benefits of zero hour contracts to all and sundry, but I’m prepared to wager they have no idea of how it impacts the working person’s life. They are the employers, not the employees. Of course it works out well for them. When was the last time you heard of the man at the low end of the totem pole being supported by the man at the top? That is what they don’t understand. It’s us, the “unskilled” or semi-skilled who keep these businesses afloat. We’re boosting the economy again, we are spending when we should be saving; we supported the Olympics and the current Euro’s bid and all we get in return is ‘screwed’… literally.

The terrifying fact for students is that it isn’t just the low paid jobs that are having zero hour contracts forced upon them. The estimated figure of those currently working on zero hour contracts in the UK ranges from 250 thousand to 5 million. And a massive 43% of these employees work in highly skilled and paid jobs often as managers, but this is what we are working for. Imagine coming out of your degree into an already competitive and difficult job market, only to find that you can work but for no contracted hours whatsoever.

Thankfully action is being taken. Ed Milliband is putting forward plans to abolish the zero hour contracts, though with the government in the current state it is in, it is difficult to predict how long this will take. But this acknowledgement alone is worth something. These contracts may be a temporary fixing aid when it comes to getting people back into work, but as a long term solution, the idea is terrifying. I value freedom and flexibility as much as the next person, but when I graduate at 27 what I want is security, stability, fixed hour contracts and a voice in the workplace.

Jordan Page

Photo: Jack Fox

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