'Zero-hours workers' expose dark side of UK labour market
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Zero-hours contracts, whose terms do not guarantee a minimum number of hours, are at the centre of the British electoral campaign. Read the first part of our series on the dark face of the UK’s economic miracle.
“I thought it would be easier,” says Julie, a 21-year-old French woman who arrived in the UK two months ago. “I’d really like to stay here but I’m exhausted,” she says, trying to hide her weariness behind a smile.
The young waitress had heard all the hype about the dynamism of the UK economy, but she was not prepared for “zero-hours contracts”, a type of working arrangement that has no equivalent in French labour law.
Julie didn’t known that by signing this agreement, she would give “full power” to her employer. Zero-hours contracts allow an employer to put his or her employee on call without setting any minimum hours or definite schedule. The employee has no stable income and must often bend over backwards to accommodate the employer’s scheduling demands.
Initially confined to students and seasonal agricultural labourers, zero-hours contracts spread to the general working population after the 2008 economic crisis. Julie is now part of a 1.5 million-strong army of zero-hours workers in Britain – a number that has risen four-fold since Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron came to power in 2010.
‘An epidemic undermining living standards’
As the May 7 general election approaches, Labour leader Ed Miliband has put the controversial contracts in his crosshairs. Describing the scheme as the “symbol of an economy that doesn’t work”, Miliband vowed on April 1, 2015 to pass a law that would give employees the right to a regular contract after 12 weeks of working regular hours.
"We have an epidemic of zero-hours contracts in our country (…) undermining hard work, undermining living standards, undermining family life. Because if you don't know from one day to the next how many hours you're going to be doing, how can you have any security for you and your family?" said the opposition leader.
Julie couldn’t have put it better herself. Zero-hours contracts are characterised by frustrating pay and job insecurity, she says.
“For some jobs, I received my schedule Sunday at midnight to work on Monday at 7am. Work times are as flexible as they are unpredictable (…) Sometimes I was working full-time, sometime just a few hours per week.”
This situation generates stress, weariness and financial difficulties. “I already had to bypass a meal, or get colleagues to buy me a sandwich. Not often, but it has already happened,” says Julie.
The young Frenchwoman makes 6.5 pounds (nine euros) per hour, a minimum wage that is well below what’s considered the “living wage” in London (9.15 pounds, 13 euros). Like most of her colleagues in the British capital, the lion’s share of her income goes to rent.
“I pay 325 pounds [450 euros] for half a bed that I share with another girl, in a place where we live with 10 flatmates in Dalston (north-east of London),” says Julie.
Easier to find a job
Despite all their shortcomings – or more likely because of them – zero-hours contracts have proved popular with British business leaders, who credit the scheme for providing a flexible labour market.
Tories claim that zero-hours contracts have helped keep the unemployment rate below six percent while boosting the economic recovery. The UK had a growth rate of 2.8% in 2014, way more than France’s anaemic 0.4%.
Even Julie admits that there are “good sides” to the zero-hours contracts: “I’m not completely opposed to these contracts. They allow me to easily find a job. I’ve already had five jobs in two months! My employers trust me, they give me responsibilities.”
As a zero-hour worker, she also makes more than the four pounds an hour she would receive if she was paid "cash-in-hand".
Despite the contract’s flexibility, not all managers are vocal supporters of the scheme.
Adel, a 25-year-old British manager at “Polo Bar”, in the heart of the City, hopes that the next government will suppress zero-hours contracts.
“I manage a team of ten people, all of them under this contract. When business is slow, I send my workers home. Sometime I ask them to leave after only two hours. It’s not fair, but I have no choice,” he says.
Leaving the UK
His worries are echoed by Nacho, a Portuguese national who has been working for seven months in a McDonald’s restaurant located among the City’s glass towers.
“My work schedule changes every week. Yesterday [Saturday] it was my day-off, I was so tired that I slept all day. I work late at night, and then start early in the morning. Nobody likes to live like that, without any job security,” says the disillusioned worker.
The catering and restaurant industry is reportedly the biggest zero-hour employer in the UK, ahead of the education and healthcare sectors. In 2013, The Guardian revealed that McDonald’s had 90% of its workforce on zero-hours terms.
Faced with forced flexibility, zero-hours workers take consolation in the fact that it’s easy to quit such jobs.
As for Julie, she is considering leaving the UK: “I’d like to stay. But I try to think it out… I’ve recently realised that I never really visited the city. I’ve been here for two months and all I do is commuting between work and home.”
“Now I’m trying to take everything more lightly. Except maybe going back to my parents’ place… That could be even worse than job insecurity.”