Kennedy Walker explains the problems with the casualization of labour, and what we can do about it
As someone who has been on a number of zero-hour contracts I can attest to the unhealthy and destructive environment they foster within the workplace. From shift managers giving their mates better working hours to staff being so fearful of losing their jobs that they come to work even when they’re ill.
These employment contracts, that might see you working full-time one week and then not at all for the next three, have emerged alongside the ‘gig economy’, a casualization of labour over recent years. Both are a result of companies trying to cut costs, leading to the erosion of workers’ rights – goodbye minimum hours and sick pay. Some people might appreciate the flexibility, but for many people, it leaves them vulnerable to unstable earnings.
Black and Asian workers in the UK are more likely to be employed in these precarious working conditions, and just like other low paid workers globally, they’re seeing their rights squeezed and their wages stunted.
On Monday (4 September), staff will go on strike in two McDonalds restaurants (Cambridge and Crayford in South East London) – the first such action against the company in the UK. The strikes coincide with the US Labor Day holiday, in an attempt to coordinate action against the $100bn fast-food giant. The strike in the UK is being led by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) with staff demanding a wage of at least £10 per hour, guaranteed hours and trade union recognition.
Last year CLASS think tank highlighted some of the myths surrounding zero-hour contracts. The notion that these contracts are for struggling small businesses is false; it’s actually big business who are most likely to use them. The portrayal of this way of working as a harmless way for students to make extra money is false; in reality, half of the increase in zero-hour contracts last year was made up of workers aged 25 and over.
This strike has been a long time coming with more than 900,000 people on zero-hour contracts and a TUC study linking them to low wages. Paring away hard-won regulation and protection from the workplace has led to nightmarish scenarios. Last year, a woman employed by Sports Direct went to work heavily pregnant out of fear of losing her job and ended up giving birth in the toilet.
The charity Centre Point highlighted that these inadequate contracts lock young people into homelessness. A spokesperson from the youth homelessness charity said, “they are desperate to get experience to improve their long-term prospects. They are being pushed by the Job Centre to take these zero-hours contracts. But if all they can access is a zero-hours contract, it will definitely be harder for them to escape homelessness in the long-term”.
There are reasons to be optimistic about this action though, and the resistance that is building amongst workers. After the public shaming of Sports Direct last year, they saw a sharp fall in their share price and the personal wealth of company founder Mike Ashley declined by £1 billion. As a result, the company offered its retail staff guaranteed hours, gave workers a voice on its board, and dropped its ‘six strike’ warehouse policy, which contributed to the fear workers were living with.
Deliveroo drivers had a win last year when the firm planned to introduce new contracts, which would have meant the drivers would be paid barely half of the national living wage. After a six-day strike, led by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the company scrapped the plans.
These successes highlight two things: that when a company mistreats its employees it harms itself, and that labour rights such as fair, sick and holiday pay, and fair treatment at work are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight to win and uphold them.
This Saturday, there’s a protest at Mcdonalds London HQ to demand the company sits down with BFAWU bakers’ union president to sign off on a promise made back in April to offer guaranteed-hour contracts to Mcdonalds workers nationwide.
The significance of acting alongside those in the US isn’t just symbolic. Companies traverse the globe and plan internationally, using borders and competition between countries to their advantage. Workers are realising this. The BFAWU said: “There is a growing global movement calling for the fair and decent treatment of workers.”
If we are to win rights for workers then campaigners need to work internationally too, we can only take on the commercial giants if we stand united.
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Kennedy currently works as a Campaigns Coordinator at a London based student
union and has previously worked at CLASS think tank as their Communications Officer and Global Justice Now in the activism team. Kennedy also has experience in grassroots organising, youth mobilisation and political education having been involved in Take Back The City and Demand The
Impossible. Having acquired a BA in Sociology from Middlesex University he then went on to achieve an MA in Human Rights, Culture and Social Justice from Goldsmiths UoL. His commentary tends to focus on issues around race, class, queerness and inequality. He tweets as @kwalkeronline
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