The problem of zero-hours contracts is in the spotlight again, as York Student Socialist Society prepares for a protest on the issue. Zero-hours contracts are an arrangement in which the employer has no obligation to provide regular working hours for the employee and pay is received only for the hours worked. As such, these contracts offer unpredictable hours and unstable earnings.
William Hornett, Chair of the society, told Nouse, “On the 5th of November, the Socialist Society, in tandem with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), is holding a day of action around the use of zero-hours contracts in York. There are known culprits in York; massive companies such as McDonald’s, which reported a more than £4 billion profit last year, and still the vast majority of their workers are on minimum wage and zero-hours contracts. This level of exploitation is frankly disgusting and has to stop… We are having an open planning meeting on Tuesday 28th at 6:15 in D/L/047. Please come along, support workers’ rights and the right to a decent contract and decent pay!”
Supporters of zero-hours contracts argue that they create flexibility and can act as a “stepping stone” to more permanent positions. However, nearly 50% of people on zero-hours contracts have been on them for more than two years; this can hardly be described as a “stepping stone”. Not only this, but many on zero-hours contracts face a struggle to make ends meet as the majority are paid below the living wage; the figure in London is 3 out of 4.
Furthermore, the pressure of this low income often cannot be alleviated by in-work benefits, such as Working Families Tax Credits, because of the unstable nature of such employment. HMRC must be informed about changes to working hours, thus claiming tax credits to raise this poverty pay to a subsistence level is far from flexible. Indeed, failure to inform HMRC of alterations in working time could result in a bill for claiming in excess. This squeeze on people’s incomes can be seen in the realm of personal debt; there has been a 140% rise in calls to National Debtline since 2007. They described a “radical shift” in the type of debt problems they were encountering; with the majority of them now concerning council tax, energy and shopping bills.
It is right to provide flexibility for those who prefer it, but a better alternative would be an arrangement which is flexible whilst still containing the safeguards of full time employment. Alternatively, the UK could move closer to Belgium and the Netherlands, where means enabling workers to negotiate working hours with employers are guaranteed in law.
With an issue of such a vast scale, it may seem pointless to protest. However, this is an issue which is relevant to students. A recent study by the University and College union found that universities are twice as likely to use these contracts as other industries. This is particularly important to many PhD students who teach at universities, as they are paid solely for contact time, with any preparation required for this excluded. Many of them are caught in vicious circle, striving for a teaching position but requiring experience to pursue their ambition.
More importantly, this is a way to give people hope; as William Hornett says to, “[make] it known that there are people and organisations out there… that are willing to fight for their dignity and rights as workers.” The protest on 5th November is the chance to have your voice heard if you believe in halting a culture of maximum flexibility for employers and minimum security for employees.