My life of freedom on a zero-hours contract – a reply to Deborah Orr

Guardian columnist Deborah Orr recently portrayed zero-hours contracts as giving a life of ‘freedom’ to ‘be your own boss’. Taking a welcome break from teaching her yoga classes and upholstering retro -hipster furniture, a zero-hour employee and member of Unite Hotel Workers Branch describes the reality of exploitation and insecurity.

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In response to a statement by Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite the Union, on the pernicious effects of zero hour contracts, the Guardian columnist Deborah Orr questions the extent to which people view the lack of permanency associated with such work as a bad thing. She points to increasing ‘flexibility’ allowing people to pick up more than one source of income and as a result fill their time with a variety of interests rather than having to endure the repetitive daily grind.  

Moreover, she sees zero-hours as an opportunity for people “to be their own boss” and to transcend the traditional binary of “worker v boss”, allowing far greater “choice” and “freedom” in one’s workplace. What the article doesn’t take into consideration are the huge disparities of wealth and privilege that exist between those who choose such a lifestyle and the vast majority, who are pushed into this position. This disparity massively shapes what it means to be without secure work.

There are now almost one million people on zero hour contracts, according to the recent social survey conducted by mass1. How wonderful to envisage the majority of these people living the idyllic lifestyle Orr portrays. To work when they want, for however long they want and wherever they want. To be able to give yoga classes for a couple of days a week, to have enough time for a crafts hobby that they can use to make enough money to pay for a nice escape. What on earth could be getting those unions’ backs up so much? Just look at all those happy, relaxed people laying on Yoga mats in the picture used to illustrate Orr’s article…

The fact of the matter is that for the majority of working people, the picture painted here is a fantasy.

As a young person working in hospitality on a zero-hour contract, I can confirm that for me and my co-workers life is very different from what is described here. There’s little time for hobbies or to be creative. It’s the life of hustle – being signed up to multiple agencies, waiting for a text or a call to be told that you will and must work with as little notice as 3 hours. It’s being threatened with ‘deactivation’, like the drivers in Uber Eats who have been protesting against this injustice.

Far from being empowering, for most, a lack of security at work means you are subject to some highly oppressive practices, have zero economic stability and little control over your life on a day to day basis. As a hotel worker and Unite member describes their experience of powerlessness whilst working with agencies:

“A new agency came and said nothing would change and then they changed everything. We lost breaks, they want us to clean more for less, and we’re losing money. They said if you don’t like it – find another job” (Unethical London Brochure)

Of course, the ‘flexibility’ provided by zero-hour contracts means that having too little work is as much of a risk as having too much. As another worker said:

“Last summer we were not particularly busy. We saw our hours almost halved with no warning or consultation. To argue that a profit making company cannot treat the staff that generate that profit with basic respect through fair wages and job security, because others don’t, does not hold when you remember you are employing humans not automatons.

“Maybe someone can teach me how to survive on six hours per week and how to pay my bills.” (Unethical London Brochure)

Industries like hospitality, food, retail, care work and logistics thrive on these practices. It means businesses can respond to the very arbitrary demands of an irregular market and then brush any period of low demand onto the shoulders of employees.

In my workplace, the number of hours I’m able to work heavily depends on factors like the weather or school holidays. Of course, during busy periods when we’re the most productive, it’s the companies who make the big bucks, not us – we’re still paid a minimum wage.  Look at the earnings of major users of zero-hour contracts – Hilton, Holiday Inn, Soho House, the list goes on…Meanwhile, the survey conducted by Unite and mass1 shows that workers on these contracts are on average earning less than £500 per month.

Of course, estate agents and mortgage lenders are fully aware of how difficult it is to get by on zero hour contract. Predictably, they offer no solace. Access to housing or loans is near enough impossible, forcing many to go to rogue landlords and take out pay-day loans.

Far from being our own bosses, we are what Karl Marx referred to as a reserve army of labour. We are called upon when demand is high and turned away according to the needs of business – a pool of unorganised, cheap extras.

The ideology of entrepreneurship and being our own boss heralded by Orr has not put workers and employers on a fair and level playing field. On the contrary, it has led to the common use of ‘pay to work schemes’ and earnings that are ways below the minimum wage. Frequently, companies avoid taking responsibility over providing vital work tools like uniform and training, on the basis that workers must ‘invest’ in themselves. It makes way for illegal practices by agencies who unfairly withhold pay. One agency, for example, tries to avoid paying its employees for the first few weeks of  their work on the basis that this period is for training, another investment that must be made by the employee. Similarly, many other agencies, like Servest, dodge giving their staff sick pay and holiday pay on this basis.

The majority of these workers have historically been women and migrants. These are also largely union free zones, so basic rights are abused on a regular basis. The fight against zero hours is a major one in the battle against racism and sexism in the workplace and – contrary to Orr’s dismissal of the struggle for secure work as ‘archaic’ – it is a good thing that major unions like Unite are finally highlighting what they have for too long neglected.

Deborah Orr’s impression of what life is like on zero-hours contracts is a Thatcherite fantasy, pure ideology. It is not based on any real engagement with employees or knowledge of the conditions we work under. Rather than this reality, her article simply reflects her own position of class privilege.

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