Zero-hour contracts and hand to mouth misery
We carry below an article by a young worker based in Coventry regarding his experiences in precarious jobs on low pay. The article was originally printed in The Socialist, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party. To subscribe to The Socialist, click here
By Dan Smart
Life on low pay and precarious contracts is a hand-to-mouth existence. You are forced to live from week to week with little ability to plan for the future.
When you aren’t told the hours you will be working that week until the day before, it can feel like walking a tightrope. It might be 60 hours, or just six.
Questions are always on your mind – will the rent get paid this month? Will I be able to afford to pay the bills and do the food shop?
Not being able to plan in advance also makes having a social life difficult. Living for the moment becomes a necessity.
The sort of job I previously saw as a temporary interlude, before moving onto something more secure and rewarding, has become the long-term prospect. As bosses look for more ways of cutting costs and maximising profits, workers’ pay and conditions are driven into the dirt. The options are becoming more limited, with insecure and zero-hour contracts becoming the norm.
I have experienced many jobs working under these conditions. At Tesco’s cafe, I was told I would get no more hours for a fortnight and that I could expect a call to let me know when I would be working again.
The call never came, and it turned out I had unofficially been sacked. The contract made it impossible for me to dispute the decision, and made it more convenient and less embarrassing for management.
The working atmosphere is often very competitive. Even for such low-paid work, we are required to battle fiercely for shifts.
This is highly beneficial to employers, as it makes people work harder and keep their heads down. It makes unionisation particularly difficult, as workers struggle to hold on to the little they have, not wanting to take any risks. With these divide and rule tactics, workers compete with their colleagues rather than organising collectively.
You often end up with the contradictory situation of some scraping by on barely any hours, while others work an exhausting amount. I have known workers to take 17 hour shifts (these were split shifts, which nevertheless have the added annoyance of leaving you waiting around for hours unpaid).
And at an agency I was with, they ask people to meet at 4.30am, to travel for hours unpaid, and work a 12 hour shift. Then do the same again the next day!
There are numerous other examples of poor working conditions I have witnessed. Friends turning up for shifts in the morning just to be sent home. Managers refusing to use people’s names, instead referring to them as ‘agency one’ and so on. And impossible targets resulting in an incredibly high turnover of staff.
Many young workers’ expectations of the working environment are far too low. We need to start getting organised now to demand decent pay, at least £10 an hour, and a quality standard of living.
The struggles in the US for $15 an hour and the fast food workers strikes are fantastic examples of how we can get organised, struggle and win!
The Socialist Party calls for:
- A minimum wage of £10 an hour as a step towards a real living wage
- No exemptions – a living wage for all, regardless of age
- For an annual increase in the minimum wage linked to the real cost of living
- End the pay freeze now
- End zero-hour contracts and all forced under-employment
- Investment in a massive programme to create socially useful jobs
- All workers, including part-timers, temps, casual and migrant workers to have trade union rates of pay, employment protection, and sickness and holiday rights from day one of employment