Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now – The misery of zero-hours contracts

English: Sports Direct - Crown Point Retail Park
English: Sports Direct – Crown Point Retail Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I grew up in the 1970s. I remember doing my homework by candlelight when strikes crippled the power stations and forced Britain onto a three day week. I remember rubbish piling up in the streets because the bin men were on strike, and a few years later the bitter fight to the death between Thatcher’s government and the miners. I bought into the 1980s ideology that unions were a malign force, even as I enjoyed the holiday and Saturday jobs that have all but vanished as an option for today’s hard-pressed students.

Thatcher’s assault on union power ushered in a new era of deregulated labour and the misery and insecurity it caused were masked, under both Labour and Conservative administrations, for decades by an economic boom financed by borrowed money. Only now are we fully realising the cost of destroying the trade unions.

When the minimum wage became law, it was hailed as a victory. But it means little if you are on a zero-hours contract. And many people have little choice. If they are offered one and turn it down, they lose their Jobseekers Allowance. If they accept, they never know from one week to the next if they’ll be working, but they are often banned by their employers from looking for other work.

This might just about be acceptable to a teenager from a wealthy home getting their first taste of independence in a summer job. But for anyone with family responsibilities, it can be devastating. Unable to prove they have a regular income, they find it difficult to get a mortgage, a credit card or even a rented home. They can’t plan ahead, can’t commit to anything, in case they’re called into work – because if they are, and they say no, they go to the bottom of the heap when the next shifts are doled out, a risk they can’t afford to take. And you can forget about sickness and holiday pay.

The phrase “culture of entitlement” gets bandied about a lot when welfare benefits are discussed – and it’s usually directed at the claimants. But isn’t that exactly the attitude of employers who think they can keep their workers at their beck and call and offer them nothing other than a minimum wage in return?

This would be bad enough if its pernicious effects were confined to the private sector, but increasingly it’s the order of the day in the NHS and other public sector jobs as well. Even in responsible professional jobs such as radiology, staff are pitted against each other in a scramble to get the best shifts. Loyalty goes out of the window. Everything is costed by the hour, reduced to a culture of targets, efficiency, and rushing from task to task.

No wonder the NHS and what used to be called “the caring professions” are in such a state. When people are forced into a situation where it’s made obvious that their employer has no loyalty to them whatsoever, paid the bare minimum and denied basic employment rights by the slight-of-hand that keeps them in a permanent state of casual, temporary labour, how much is it fair to really expect of them? If you know that an extra ten minutes spent with an anxious, vulnerable patient or a lonely old lady will earn you a dressing down from your line manager and a warning that if you can’t meet your targets there are plenty of other people out there desperate for your job, the most saintly of carers will eventually burn out and become mechanical at best, or even callous.

Back in the Eighties, Morrissey sang, “I was looking for a job, then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” And he went on to say:

In my life
why do I give valuable time
to people who don’t care if I live or die?
A lot of working people can relate to that all too easily. The recent exposure of Sports Direct, a retail chain with a staggering 90% of its workers on zero-hours contracts, has finally pushed Nick Clegg to promise that the scandal of zero-hours contracts will be looked at. But in a week where those few people who dare to sue their employers had even more expensive barriers put in their way, it’s unrealistic to hope for significant change any time soon.

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