UKREN blog

Thursday 28 July 2016

Zero hours, no relief: precarious work in Britain's capital

Byron Hamburgers Limited’s decision to call staff into work under the guise of a training session, and to then promptly shop them all to the Home Office has been met with wide-reaching public outcry. The incident is, unfortunately, yet another manifestation of the ‘hostile environment’ Prime Minister Theresa May is committed to creating for migrants in the UK. Since May become Home Secretary, immigration raids have ramped up to its current level of 11 a day in London alone.

This incident reveals more than just hostility- it lays bare the exploitative treatment of migrant workers, who can be used by bosses and tossed aside when the ‘legality’ of their right to abode is called into question, and they are no longer useful. I was reminded by a colleague of an incident in 2012, when Tesco collaborated with the Home Office by honey-trapping 20 students by offering them more hours of work than their visas permitted. They were all removed.from the UK, and the UK Border Agency officials decided against revoking Tesco’s licences because they wanted to work with the conglomerate to “solve the problem". When the state and big business operate hand-in-hand for the interests of capital, workers are left unsupported and unprotected.

At the intersection of immigration status, Black/Asian/minority ethnic (BAME) background or perceived BAME background, socio-economic status, and gender lies the zero-hours contract. Zero hours contracts between workers and bosses in the UK are an agreement which specify no minimum number of working hours a week. The employee is not guaranteed work, and is only paid for work carried out. Statistics from the ONS reveal that over 1.8 million people in the UK are working on this zero-hours basis, and this figure has jumped up by 15% since 2014.

It is likely that the 35 workers arrested in the raid at Byron Burgers on 4th July were working on ‘zero-hours’ contracts, a form of labour which stacks up profits for bosses and milks workers of their time and labour, and for some- their physical and mental health. These contracts commonly do not include sick pay, holiday pay, and pensions.

Why do zero-hours contracts exist?

Industries which experience peaks and troughs in the demand for workers such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, care work, and tourism-related work use zero hours contracts as a way to trim costs. This ensures that the maximum amount of profit can be made by paying the minimum feasible amount of staff at any one time.

For workers this means precarious employment. Young people, women, and people from BAME and migrant backgrounds are over-indexed in zero-hours arrangements. A report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in April 2015 (‘Living on the Margins’) documents this growth in precious work, and details the associated human cost of zero hour contracts, such as low pay, under-employment, heightened financial insecurity, vulnerability to exploitation, and a lack of flexibility or autonomy over workers’ own lives.

A study published in the British Medical Journal summarised the health impacts of irregular shift work- the manner in which zero hours work is usually organised- as including a reduction in quality and quantity of sleep; anxiety, depression, cardiovascular complaints; an increase in gastrointestinal disorders, and for pregnant people a heightened risk of spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, and prematurity.

The TUC notes that due to the transient nature of this type of work, basic workers rights are sidelined (note that it only just became illegal in 2015 for an employer to require its zero-hours workers to not have employment arrangements at any other workplace), and complaints and criticisms are met with workers simply not being offered hours.

What can be done?

1. Resist immigration raids on workplaces

Immigration raids are conducted, for the most part, on Black, Asian and migrant-owned shops and businesses. Often the defence is given that raids are intended to ensure employers aren’t exploiting workers. The way to prevent exploitation is not to deport the worker, but to fight for consistent and non-discriminatory workers rights for all.

Information on what to do if you see an immigration raid on a shop or business is available here.

2. Support a campaign

Grassroots campaigns and trade unions continue to fight successfully against zero hours, and to secure aspects of these rights, such as workers at a Hovis factory in Wigan and the Fast Food Rights campaign backed by the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union; the Tres Cosas campaign backed by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), and Justice 4 Cleaners backed by Unison and UCU. Join a demonstration or picket, or donate to a campaign or strike fund if you can.

3. Join a union and know your rights.

You can find information about joining a union here, and information about what rights zero-hours workers are entitled to here.

4. Contact your MEP

Meanwhile in Brussels Labour MEPs continue to press the European Commission to take action on zero-hours contracts, but post-Brexit, a ‘bonfire of workers rights’ in the UK is likely to paint a whole new landscape. You can contact your MEP and ask them what action they are taking on the issue of zero-hours contracts and precarious labour.

5. Contact your MP

Unite has set up a simple webform so you can email you MP some clear recommendations for ending zero-hour exploitation, such as dropping the coalition government’s creation of a £1200 charge for workers to present a grievance at work before an employment tribunal, and defining zero hours workers as employees with all the related rights and protections.


By Leah Cowan


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