“The strictest law sometimes becomes the severest injustice.” Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)
I HAVE a deal for you. I call you my employee and get you to work when I need you. I owe you none of the benefits a full-time employee enjoys or a guaranteed income. You will work when I tell you to, as long as I can get away with and I will pay you an hourly rate of, or around, the lowest I can. You will not be able to get a mortgage or a loan of any kind other than from a shark or company which will exploit you for exorbitant interest rates and crippling penalties.
In return, you will have a job. You will be able to identify an employer when people in your community or family circle ask you ‘where are you working now’, or ‘what are you at these days?’
If I offered you these things I hope you would turn to me and say ‘no thank you kind sir but perchance have you been enjoying the wonderful contemporary writings of our most revered author Charles Dickens?’
The conditions described above are not the remnants of a pre-union era. They are a current and growing phenomenon euphemised of threat by the title “zero hours contract”.
As so often in these instances, the hint is in the name. In the last week, a scandal of sorts has broken in Britain. The numbers of workers being employed on this basis has been revealed thanks to a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in Britain. It estimates that one million workers are currently employed in this capacity.
The Guardian has reported that McDonald’s employs 90% of its staff in Britain on the basis of a zero hours contract. This amounts to just over 82,000 people. In conservative terms, this amounts to many thousands of families with no guaranteed income on a weekly basis. Essentially, these people are being robbed of their rights to enable their employer to run their business in a way that will increase their profit margin.
This is not a British problem. Unfortunately, multiple searches have revealed little by way of coverage in the Irish media.
The Citizens’ Information website states, “If you have a zero-hours contract this means there is a formal arrangement that you are required to be available for a certain number of hours per week, or when required, or a combination of both”.
Governed by the Organisation of Working Time Directive 1997, “The Act requires that an employee under a zero-hours contract, who works less than 25% of their hours in any week, should be compensated. The level of compensation depends on whether the employee got any work or none at all. If the employee got no work, then the compensation should be either for 25% of the possible available hours or for 15 hours, whichever is less. If the employee got some work, they should be compensated to bring them up to 25% of the possible available hours.”
In cases of abuse, we all rightly call for the vulnerable to be protected and yet, in this instance, the protection seems not to have been extended to those who find themselves unemployed and perhaps unskilled.
If they claim social welfare in order to feed themselves or their families, they are vilified as draining the state and being ‘spongers’ of some kind. If they wish to work but haven’t the faculties or qualifications to get another job they are left to the dogs who are waiting to catch them where the safety net of a responsible society should be. They have not fallen through the cracks in this case; the net has been taken away, ripped up and replaced with spikes, so as to better facilitate the lupine gorging on their bodies.
In Ireland, I have no doubt, the same excuses to maintain this despicable law will be voiced, as have been in Britain, despite headline-starved calls for its abolition. There remains an uncomfortable fact. Workers need flexibility because of the nature of their lives. Similarly, employers need workers in order to run their businesses.
Although this dynamic has remained static since the days of Marx, the perception of the worker has been in a permanent state flux. The balance of power has gone from Dickensian exploitation to decent terms and conditions and is now recoiling like a slingshot’s elastic. To be unionised or even hoping to receive what you deserve economically for your time or labour is to be branded a troublemaker.
From what I have gathered anecdotally, this is less about overt blacklisting and more of a capitalist exercise in emphasising the number of unemployed people, who are not just waiting but, potentially, breaking down the door to get in and take your job. It has strong echoes of the scare tactics promulgated around immigrants and used to such devastating effect to right-wing politicians in so many other areas since the lives of so many people on the island became almost impossibly difficult.
Freelance work is defined by feast or famine. It’s not uncommon for a fallow period to be followed by multiple jobs coming at once. Those of us who do it have chosen a life path and deal with it. The trick is in the name however.
We are ‘free’ in the sense that we choose our work when it is offered. If we engage with a company we deliver a product at a set time to order and the things works out well for both parties.
Zero-hours contracts on the other hand hark back to the days of indentured labour. I am not calling for an over-unionised throttle around the necks of those who wish to generate their income through the capitalist system, I just really wish they could stop making their profits so nakedly off the exploitation of others.
That said, I’m not sure they can. If Marx and Dickens were alive today I’m not sure they would identify much by way of change regarding the plight of the worker or the impoverished.