When thinking about what will define my generation- Generation Y - nothing sums it up more grittily than the scene in Girls where 24-year-old Hannah informs her boss that after a year of interning at his publishing house, she can no longer work for free. His response: "Oh Hannah, we're so sorry to lose you".
Only two years ago, unpaid internships were in the spotlight. The media busied itself with pulling interns out of the chimneys of private sector companies and Westminster offices to expose their plight. Now, thanks to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's claim that up to one million people could be employed on a zero-hour contract, the secret's out. It is a practice that has affected most of my colleagues in the media sector and more than a third or my generation, the under 25s club.
Large media organisations are some of the worst offenders for employing people on zero-hour contracts and it is graduates and young people who are suffering the most. Having worked in various newsrooms, many of the colleagues I started with have been on these contracts since they graduated. To be on 'zero-hours' with no whiff of anything permanent is not only financially challenging, but deeply demoralising. And just like the news reports that were churned out on unpaid internships, many written by unpaid interns themselves, it is almost unbearable to watch broadcasters report on a culture of casualisation, whilst failing to acknowledge their own part in it.
The reality of life on a zero-hour contract in this industry is grim. The working hours that are prescribed varies greatly. Due to the 24-hour nature of news and entertainment, staff are contracted to work a certain number of days on and off in the week. Zero-hour contract holders are not so lucky - one week can mean 60 hours and the next only 10. Working late shifts into early ones are common practice, with no financial compensation. Employees have the 'luxury' of refusing shifts, but it rarely happens. I have yet to meet anyone on a starting pay grade and an eagerness to progress through the ranks, who would run the risk of being labelled 'unenthusiastic' or 'unreliable'.
The rise of zero-hour contracts has created a 'take it or leave it' attitude amongst employers. In my experience, colleagues have been doled out all the anti-social shifts, resulting in low morale and damaging affects to their physical and mental health. A good friend of mine, after working as a 'full-time' researcher on a zero-hour contract was lucky enough to find a permanent job elsewhere. The line manager was informed and, without ceremony, said, "You're leaving? I'll take you off the rota."
In many organisations, working on a zero-hour contract dislocates you from the rest of the workplace. Colleagues of mine have noted that, despite putting in the hours and performing in the same roles as staff, they are barred from taking part in any in-house training courses. This two-tier system not only risks jeopardising editorial standards, since many casual workers are doing jobs above their pay grade, but also isolates their employee at their level of competence.
Many think tanks and commentators have been quick to defend this system as advantageous in the current economy. Matthew Oakley writes in the Evening Standard that this form of work is 'flexible' and 'responsive' to the needs of the employee. The Institute of Economic Affairs goes further to suggest that banning zero-hour contracts will benefit a shadow economy and increase cash-in-hand work.
It is fair to say that this system does work for a minority - the semi-retired, the university student, those with other commitments and have been traditionally used as a small supplement to a work force. Yet, the reality is that these contracts are issued to graduates entering the job market as a substitute for permanent or temporary staff jobs. Once this process becomes the norm, employers will have no incentive to provide them.
As with the arguments wheeled out in support of unpaid internships - how necessary the experience is, what a brilliant way for some young whipper snapper to get insight into the workplace - there will always be reasons to employ someone on a no-rights contract. It benefits the employer only. There must be greater accountability of human resources and the skills they introduce must not be considered expendable.
Zero-hour contracts and a broken spirit will define Generation Y if steps are not taken to use the skills of enthusiastic young people and give them decent employment rights in exchange for their dedication. The common use of these contracts has violated a social contract between the employer and the employee. Hard work and loyalty is not being rewarded with respect and progress. Blaming a tough economy to justify the erosion of basic rights is unimaginative and hard to swallow. If we are competent enough to be hired and deliver, we deserve to be counted.
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