In defence of zero-hour contracts

I’ve been in the news a lot recently, as a member of a poor oppressed underclass in need of rescuing from Victorian corporate interests. Which came as quite a shock.

I am, you see, a zero-hours worker and the beneficiary of a Labour led crusade which will free me from the shackles of my vague employ, and then presumably reshackle me in something a little firmer. At least, that’s how it looks when the party of the worker publicly announces that they’ll ban a type of employment contract which, at its best, serves the worker quite well.

I’m twenty-five, and I work in a kitchen owned by a national chain; it’s not the dream job but it pays the bills. It’s flexible when I need it to be, and I have time in the week to write. If I want to go out of town I ask my boss to take me off the rota for a few days, and if I feel a little light of pocket I put in a few extra hours at the end of my shift. We should all be so privileged.

This of course is not the story of zero-hour contracts that we’ve been hearing. Cancelled shifts, exclusivity clauses, the narrative of Sports Direct, these have been the popular manifestations of the dread zero-hours contract, the stories fit to have a Private Members Bill out of Gateshead and Milliband name-dropping from his little black book. And they’re right to draw attention to them. They’re fulfilling their duty to the public in shaming companies which, through their practices, disadvantage people desperate to find work.

But by blaming a type of employment contract rather than, say, the actual company managers themselves, politicians are short-changing the UK workforce in two important ways: first, they are threatening the removal of an approach to working that really is the most convenient option for thousands of people; and second, they are distracting us from the fact that employers are real people with the capability and obligation to make moral decisions regarding those in their employment. They are at fault if they choose to interpret employment law to the detriment of the employee. The laissez-faire ideology that says business people must respond to every incentive to turn a profit, that once given the option they have no choice but to reserve employees on an indentured basis in case they need them later is a tacit acceptance of every dodgy, semi-legal excess of the business world from tax avoidance to sweatshops.

Zero-hours contracts are not a new thing, just a reframing of an old thing, what people once called ‘casual labour’. Most of the waiting and bar jobs I had throughout my teens and early twenties involved no contract at all, just a handshake agreement between two people, and that is still the case with a lot of employees in the service industry.

Greater contractual protection is preferable of course, where it’s sensible. The proposed private members bill of Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead, has suggestions for rights that some workers would be astonished to find they don’t already have. No last-minute cancellations of shifts? Brilliant. Employees free to seek additional work? Naturally. Workers who have been employed for 12 weeks to receive a contract for fixed and regular hours? Damn. If I wanted fixed and regular hours I would have taken a different job. Now I’m likely to be punished for the misbehaviour of companies that are only going to find a different way to exploit their workforces.