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The Zero-Hours Contracts Debate Needs Rekindling

17/11/2015 17:34 GMT | Updated 17/11/2016 10:12 GMT

On a wet windy Sunday morning, I found myself waiting in line with an endless sea of zero-hour contract workers clinging to the hope that this large turnout would not hinder my chances of working. My experience may appear to have been plagiarised from a century old scene of ship-yard workers queuing up daily in a desperate attempt to gain employment, however in reality it took place in London, 2015.

The scene unfolded outside a well-known football stadium, home to a world-renowned club who are funded by a multi-billionaire businessman. Although this occurred at one specific stadium, it represents a small speckle in the ocean of rich companies that have built systems around zero-hours contracts. Chained to the sea-bed of this ocean are 740,000 individuals who currently rely on a system of text messages or badly designed websites to determine if work is available.

This is a system that flourished under five years of coalition rule, and will only continue under the Tories, as big businesses capitalise on the potential of hiring workers who aren't necessarily protected by legal support obtained in permanent contracts.

A recent ONS study discovered that 2.4% of the British workforce are now on zero-hours contracts, which is a major increase from 0.57% in 2010. However, these figures can be put into context by the number of workers that they represent with 561,000 more individuals becoming employed in zero-hour positions since 2010.

The Conservatives recently found solace in new ONS findings that discovered unemployment has fallen to a seven year low of 5.4%, which equates to 1.77million. However, what they failed to acknowledge is how zero-hours contracts are being used as a smoke-screen to ignore an army of low-paid workers.

It is true that a record number of British people are currently employed, however with 740,000 facing the potential threat of instant dismissal while possessing little legal support this statistic becomes rather irrelevant.

Throughout this debate, there has often been an argument that individuals who work in these positions cannot be defined as "employees", which enables large companies to side-step legal protection designed to curb unfair treatment. This is generally attributed to an unclear distinction between the definitions of a "worker" and an "employee".

It is generally considered that a "worker" is legally entitled to basic but broad employment rights. However, an "employee" enjoys a more defined and greater set of rights. For example this includes; the right to not be unfairly dismissed, maternity rights and redundancy rights. In theory, the Conservatives may have created a system where an army sized collective of workers possess little legal support and vague job security.

During my time as a zero-hour worker, I had shifts cancelled at extremely short notice, job roles changed without my knowledge, underpayments made into my bank account and more. This all derived from a company based solely around zero-hour contracts having been provided with an open platform to blossom under conservative-led rule.

I also witnessed a growing wave of paranoia sweep through staff due to fears surrounding their pay. An example of this was how workers regularly took photographs of their jobcards, a piece of paper provided during each shift, to guarantee that they were paid correctly. This began in response to reports that the company had been underpaying staff, which really conveys the atmosphere of anxiety present throughout its workforce.

In the build up to May's election, zero-hours contracts were a prominent theme as then Labour leader Ed Miliband promised to eradicate them entirely whereas David Cameron repeatedly voiced his support for their use. This was an interesting statement from Cameron as when pressed by Jeremy Paxman during a pre-election debate he inadvertently stated that he couldn't actually live on one.

Following May's election, the discussion surrounding zero-hour contracts appears to have nosedived. However, hope remains as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has previously voiced objection to the contracts. In a post-election article for the Morning Star, Corbyn stated that these contracts are "a malign employment practice" alongside warning that as a country we are "joining a race to the bottom" for employment rights.

Although these quotes clearly represent Corbyn's opposition, we have yet to see a substantial post-election campaign against their use. This will be a crucial decision for the Labour leader to make as if zero-hours contracts are left to grow at current speeds, we could see the emergence of a generation of workers that possess next to no employment rights.

It is for this reason that the debate surrounding zero-hours contracts must be rekindled as their very genetics are exploitative and biased towards employers. In simple, there must be an alternative to this system. A system where 740,000 individuals could wake up everyday without the worry of not being able to work and subsequently be left with no money.