THE BLOG

Down and Out in London (and Derbyshire)

12/02/2016 20:09 GMT | Updated 12/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Almost three quarters of a million workers in Britain are employed on zero hours contracts, a trebling of the number since 2012, a recent report from the ONS shows. They are most commonly found in the hospitality sector, where 40% of companies use such hiring practices. Whilst many business leaders defend them as a way of keeping the British job market flexible and competitive, trade unions have attacked them as insecure, and symptomatic of broader attacks on workers' rights.

Such practices have their defenders. James Sproule from the Institute of Directors argues that ZHCs provide flexibility to the British economy, essential for seasonal industries such as hospitality and tourism, and that ZHCs reflect the changing labour market. "People are no longer starting a career in their early twenties and spending decades with the same employer," argues Sproule. "We should not lament or celebrate an increase in the number of people using [ZHCs], but rather acknowledge that they are here to stay".

Here to stay they may be, but what is more worrying than the existence of zero hours contracts is their use in the public sector at a time of government cuts, as a long-term solution to keeping wage costs low. 24% of public sector employers now use zero hour contracts, including the NHS. Workers on ZHCs earn on average £300 less a week than those on permanent contracts, and have little in the way of workers' rights.

Right across the workforce, labour practices are becoming less formal, symptomatic of a culture of subcontracting in the low-pay economy. Last year Pizza Express was embroiled in scandal after it was revealed managers deducted an 8% "administration fee" from staff tips. The success of Uber has shown that most people are happy to view staff in the service sector as little better than servants that can be rented by the hour, provided their cab home is cheaper. For many young people, unpaid internships are now regarded as inevitable for anyone seeking a route into the creative industries or the not-for-profit sector, strangling access to these worlds for all but the most privileged.

In Higher Education, ZHC-style arrangements are becoming the norm for those embarking on careers, or for those nearing retirement, as staff work on the basis of being paid per hour of teaching. This comes at a time of record pay gaps between lecturers and university managers. According to the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, the average university vice chancellor now earns approximately six times the salary of a lecturer.

After graduating I worked for a hospitality agency for six months. Rendered invisible by the uniform, this gave me access to a surreal new world. I once worked at the Conservative Party Summer Ball, where young Conservatives posed for selfies with George Osborne, and guests bid upwards of a hundred grand at auction for a two week holiday on a party donor's yacht.

My own experiences in the hospitality sector were not altogether negative. I rarely had a bad experience from any of the managers, most of whom were hardworking, dedicated and fair. However, I was fortunate to be working as a holiday job. I met many students studying full time in London, who regularly worked from six until three in the morning. With maintenance grants for poorer students facing cuts, this situation will only worsen as more and more young people face a choice between lectures, sleep and paying rent.

This reliance on a vast replaceable body of labour recalls the "call-on" of British dock workers in the 19th century. Whilst a minority were employed full time by the docks, the vast majority would be hired on a casual basis on the day, sometimes for just a few hours work. Every day, at major port cities, there would be a scramble as thousands of men would assemble by the gates, fighting to get hired, for if they didn't work that day then they didn't eat.

Though hiring is rarely so drastic today, shifts are sent out by text and filled on a first-come-first-serve basis. Those shifts that pay slightly better will be snatched up first. If your response is too slow, or you are not picked, then you don't work. Shifts can be cancelled on the day if you are no longer needed. If you make a mistake you can be blacklisted, not just by that workplace but by an entire agency.

There is hope of real change. Some venues, notably the London Olympic Park, is now paying the London living wage of £9.70 an hour. Back in December, The Guardian reported on conditions at the Sports Direct warehouse in Derbyshire, where more than 80% of the largely immigrant workforce are employed on ZHCs. Slowly but surely, the tide may turn and this "call-on" approach to labour will end.