Thursday, 8 September 2016

Work and food

There has been a huge – 20% - rise in the number of workers in the UK on Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs) in the last year, bringing the total to about 900,000. It’s telling that in the third edition of my book, published in 2012 but mainly written in 2011 I did not mention ZHCs, which at that time were much less common and there were perhaps only 200,000 workers on them in the UK. That is remedied in the fourth edition that will be out later this year, of course, but even that will not take account of this latest surge.

Lauded as offering ‘flexibility’ for individuals, ZHCs are all about flexibility for organizations: there are no guaranteed hours, it is labour on demand. And although in the public mind they are associated with low-skill jobs like cleaning and catering, they are also common in professional occupations such as teaching and airline pilots.

It’s become obligatory to say that ZHCs suit some people, but to foreground that is to de-emphasise that in most cases they do not, and are a source of miserable insecurity (for some experiences see here and here). But recently published research shows that they are also bad from a business point of view, in terms of contributing to the long-term productivity problem of UK business (Rubery, Keizer & Grimshaw, 2016).

The worst kinds of ZHCs – so-called exclusive ZHCs, which prevent workers taking employment with other employers – have been banned in the UK. And, under great political pressure, retailer Sports Direct (where over 90% of staff are on ZHCs) has announced this week that it will give its employees (but not agency staff) a choice between a ZHC and a guaranteed hours contract. But ZHCs are illegal in New Zealand and (with some complexity of definition) in many European countries.

Whilst ZHCs have received a lot of media and political attention, what is perhaps even more significant is the rise in self-employment. This connotes an image of small entrepreneurs and sturdy self-reliance of the sort lauded by free market ideologues. In fact, it is largely to do with companies employing people as independent contractors – often, people who were hitherto employees of the same companies they now contact to – and the rise of the gig, or uber, economy. There are perhaps 5 million people in the UK who are self-employed.

I know from personal experience what the insecurity of self-employment means because my father, after he left the army, was a self-employed driving instructor during my childhood. That encompassed periods when anything from illness to a heavy snowfall to the petrol shortages during the 1973 oil crisis, and in those periods he had no income and no savings and the consequence was that our family had – almost literally - no food. But what I remember more from those times than the lack of food is the pervasive worry that tomorrow there would be no food at all. Nowadays, I’m insulated from such insecurity but when I contribute to the local foodbank it’s because I remember what it means. In the UK currently there are a million people a year who use foodbanks, although this is probably an underestimate. One of the key drivers is reported to be ‘insecure work arrangements’ including ZHCs.

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