In Britain the number of workers on zero hour contracts doubled between 2011 and 2012, and doubled again between 2012 and 2014. These contracts, which have become increasingly popular in many industrial and services sectors, are on the rise. Exact figures are not easy to come by, but as of 2014 the UK National Office of Statistics estimated there were 700,000 employees working with zero hour contracts. Here in Ireland, while the numbers are not as high, the use of these contracts has begun to make an impression. Research conducted in Dublin has shown that almost ninety percent of zero hour contract workers under 35 were finding it difficult to make ends meet, and their use in Dunnes Stores was listed as one of the principle reasons for last year’s strike action.
In spite of the sales pitch of governments and employers that these contracts give workers greater flexibility and control over their working hours, it is clear that zero hour contracts better suit the requirements of the employer than they do the worker. It’s true, of course, that there are many on these contracts who are happy with them. Naturally they will fit the needs of some. It is also true that zero hour workers are entitled to minimum wage and annual leave, but, given the shortage of work and the ease with which these employees can be dismissed, workers who lodge complaints to have their rights met invariably wind up with zero hours.
As is the case with most things of a distinctly neoliberal flavour offered to workers the sales pitch is always better than the bargain. The advent of zero hours has indeed resulted in higher productivity. It does not require extensive academic research to know that employees continually under the shadow of dismissal will work longer and harder for less pay. The fact that productivity is measured by an equation that divides output by labour – which has been reduced – keeps this measure moving upwards. Yet the shift from traditional contracts of employment to zero hours has resulted in a larger proportion of the workforce earning less.
With the current power imbalance between zero hour employees and employers, the obvious benefit of these contracts to employers, and the productivity benefit they produce, it is understandable why employers prefer them and why the number of workers on them is increasing. Like all other forms of exploitative working conditions these contracts are not good for people who have to exchange their labour for work. They make people worse off, and accelerate the transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top of the economy. The more this trend continues, the harder it will be to stop. More decisive action is needed by governments, trade unions, and ordinary people to put an end to this naked assault on the rights of working people.