Finally the widespread phenomenon of zero hours contracts has broken into the national consciousness, with a lot of coverage in the media.
Unite estimate as many as 5.5 million workers could be on such contracts, perhaps a fifth of the national workforce. Ed Miliband felt compelled to promise to ban certain types of zero hours contract in his speech to the TUC last month.
Zero hours is so common in the service sector that it has become the norm in some chains; as much as 90% of the workforce in the case of Sports Direct. But it also afflicts other workplaces. Over 20,000 university staff are thought to be employed on the basis of zero hours.
This growth can be attributed more than anything to the decline of union power at the point of production. And its continued growth could serve to weaken the unions further because many of them have been slow to cotton on to the importance of organising casual workers.
So combating zero hours is key for unions to defend their own interests; retaining membership, protecting established terms and conditions, and preventing the undercutting of wages. Unions are perhaps beginning to move on this; the food workers’ union BFAWU recently won, through strike action, the near eradication of zero hours and agency work at the Hovis/Premier Foods factory in Wigan.
But the zero hours question also throws up wider questions about the nature of “work” and how it is organised.
The defenders of zero hours make the point that “flexibility” is good – this is true. But a Mass1 survey for Unite found that only 13% of workers on zero hours contracts wanted to stay on one. Not surprising, because flexibility on the boss’s terms means hell for the rest of us.
Many of the so-called “benefits” of flexibility actually only show up the sketchy nature of zero hours work. After all, what’s better? Giving up shifts (and pay) to deal with a personal crisis, or being properly covered with good holidays and sick pay?
It would be a missed opportunity if trade unionists limited our demands to guaranteed hours. We can take it a step further and argue that workers should collectively decide how work is shared out. Why? Because we don’t want people structuring every aspect of their life around work. And we want to affirm the principle of union control of workplace procedures, build the confidence of unions to put forward positive proposals for how work can be shared.
Unite are calling for “a restoration of sector level collective bargaining” to tackle zero hours. It sounds like what they have in mind could be a return to the old Wages Boards, the merits of which are debatable. Of course, this won’t happen, particularly in unorganised sectors and particularly under a Tory government, without massive industrial campaigns calling for it.
On a local level, union branches which feel confident enough should start to assert themselves over working practices as the Hovis bakers have done, and draw up plans for the sort of workplaces we want to see.