Zero Hours Contracts – A Recurring Theme Of Exploitation

It has always been fashionable to explain the ‘necessity’ of low wages in terms of competitiveness in world markets; a view criticised by the Manchester weavers in 1823: ” … We cannot hear, without strong emotions, our merchants boast their ability to undersell all other Nations, while that ability is acquired by reducing us to the Borders of Starvation, and keeping us but one remove from Slavery” (H.O. 40. 18).

The principle here is one of ‘warfare of the markets’, so, although the UK is not now primarily a manufacturing nation, the same argument is used to justify low wages by companies ‘competing’ in internal markets.

Pre-dating Keynes, and being aware of the illogicality of the ‘beggar-your-neighbour’ approach to economics, which has countries and companies competing to reduce workers wages and rights (called structural reforms), in a misguided attempt to be the ‘last skeleton standing’, the weavers declared: “That if Liberal Wages were given … in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment” (H.O. 42. 60).

The weavers were also aware of the principle of ‘divide and rule’ – “We advise all professions who live by work to stand up for a proper remuneration of their labour, and then the poor rates (working tax credits in modern parlance) would lessen, and princely fortunes will not be so soon made by the speculators who favour a few … in order to divide us … against less favoured workmen” (ibid.).

What are zero hour contracts other than a version of a recurring theme of exploitation? There is nothing new about them. Master weavers employed journeymen and women, and paid them 2/3 the price of the work they produced; if the worker was ‘underproductive’ or unliked, they were replaced by a more ‘acceptable’ one; this same principle being witnessed in the economic slump of the early 1930’s (the Great Depression), when men would congregate behind factory gates, hoping that the hirer would point his finger at them; knowing he would not if they were ‘troublemakers’.

The zero hours contract will not be confined to “less favoured workmen”; they will be increasingly applied to all, as an inevitable consequence of the argument of ‘competitiveness’ – and those making “princely fortunes” out of this process will be lauded as exemplars to the young of how the Protestant Work Ethic favours “winners” over “losers”; as Dimon (2013) commented: “This philosophy separates the fit from the unfit. People are unequal by nature, but this is an advantage to society because the fittest, in a Darwinian sense, will contribute more to society, which will benefit everyone; the example of 19th. century philanthropy by rich industrialists is often given. Nothing is owed to the weak, the poorly educated, what happens to them is their own fault, not the fault of society”.

The principle of ‘divide and rule’ is a permanent feature of ruling class control. During the Great Depression, the American Federation of Labor, which mainly represented skilled workers, distanced itself from unemployed American workers, and tried to convince employers that they should be involved in pay negotiations, as they were receptive to the business goals of employers; a modern parallel being the Royal College of Nurses’ identical stance ( February 2012).

The Protestant Work Ethic gave the gloss of religion to an ageless theme. The Roman Emperor Tiberius stated his objection to the State aiding the poor; “Otherwise industry will languish and idleness be encouraged if a man has nothing to fear, and every one … will expect relief from others, thus becoming useless to himself and a burden to me” (Annals, ii. 38).

Whether you are a nurse, doctor, lecturer, teacher, train driver, bus driver, lorry driver, factory worker, the zero hour contract awaits. Soon, all will wait by the phone for the call to work, not being able to plan their day or week in advance; too scared to turn down work in case it is offered to someone who never does.

Zero hour contracts are not likely to be a phenomena of an economic downturn, as some imply, but are a return to an older infection of attitude that, at it’s extremes, saw tiny, naked children forced to ascend the 7 inch square chimneys of the rich. “If the chimneys happen to be too small, ” said a witness in 1788, “they call the boys down, strip them, and beat them, and force them up again, by which means they become crippled” (House of Commons Journal, May 1, 1788). The attempts to prohibit the use of “climbing boys” gives valuable insight into ruling class mentality. Bills were introduced in the House of Commons to abolish the practice (machinery, a more expensive alternative, was available), which were opposed in the House of Lords, on grounds that abuses were exaggerated; if they existed, they were necessary (for ‘competitiveness’); if they were abolished, worse would follow (unemployment). The same responses are used today by companies exploiting workers on zero hours contracts. This is not to imply that such companies would ever contemplate a return to evil practices, or any government, likewise; yet, on any permissible scale of exploitation, which now includes falling real  wages, fewer workers’ rights; the avoidance of holiday pay and pensions, where would the zenith of exploitation rest? Certainly, under the mantra of “flexibility”, with workers submitting the lowest rate they will work for on job auction sites. Neither is there an implication that zero hour contracts are not favoured by some, who either receive regular hours of work, or can afford to accept irregular ones; yet their satisfaction with the system is going to be numerically swamped by those abused by it. A little good should not be used to sanctify a greater evil. The ‘genie’ of naked exploitation was eventually curtailed by 19th. century employment legislation; it is now being released, never to be again so restricted. According to a 2013 study by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation among 600 employers, some 27 percent used zero-hours contracts. This figure will inexorably rise, as the call for ‘flexible’ labour is made ever louder.

Yet, how do you arrange childcare on a few hours notice? How do you get a tenancy agreement without a regular income? How can you leave the benefit system for a zero guarantee job? How can you leave a zero hour job and claim benefits? To whom do you complain when you are placed on permanent call but only are paid for the hours you work? To those fierce defenders of the working class, unions such as UNISON? – sponsors of horseracing (‘the sport of the rich’) at Doncaster, whose General Secretary, Dave Prentiss, took a salary of £130,000 in 2009/10. To the New Labour Party? – which is, as their union paymasters, a fully subscribed eunuch of the ruling class; their spokesman, Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, limply tweeting (August 5, 2013): “Zero-hours contracts should be the exception to the rule, but unfortunately are becoming the norm in some sectors and companies”. It is perhaps not surprising that Labour-run councils across the UK are among the many local authorities using zero-hours contracts in an attempt to cut wage bills in response to ‘austerity measures’.

Did these bastions of the working class defend those former workers of an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley?, who, when interviewed by Channel 4, claimed “their movements were monitored by GPS trackers and that they were only given 30 minutes for lunch in a 10-hour shift, 20 minutes of which was spent walking to and from the canteen. When they got there they were subject to searches for stolen goods at airport-style security checkpoints. Using the “three strikes and you’re out” principle, the employer allegedly issued penalty points to workers for talking to colleagues, taking sick leave, or even spending too long in the bathroom” (, August 1, 2013).

This utterly degrading system will be supported by the same ruling class that sent soldiers to violently disperse protesting weavers and other workers in the first quarter of the 19th. century. This elite will include a smattering of those ‘risen from the ranks’ of the working class (having attended elocution lessons and other instruction in polite etiquette), so as to deflect from the class against class nature of their assault. The ‘risen’ ones, though sneered at in private by their ruling class recruiters, will be the most fervent advocates of zero hour (maximum exploitation) contracts – “set a beggar on horseback, and he will not know when to stop”; a point made by the Manchester weavers (H.O. 42. 178).

The initial response of the American government to mass unemployment was to place a focus on “the community” to alleviate suffering, with charities, religious groups, and “good neighbours” being encouraged to support the unemployed and their families; a modern rendering of this theme being the “Big Society”, in which food banks and soup kitchens are a reminder of the degrading experience of many unemployed, under-employed, and lowly paid people.

Propaganda in the form of history textbooks states that Roosevelt created the Social Security Act in 1935 to relieve human suffering brought about by the Great Depression. He did little after his election in 1932 to deal with mass unemployment, which reached 25% in 1933. The employed faced a reduction in their hours and wages. The orthodox response of the American Establishment was that unemployment was not the responsibility of government; the role of government was to create conditions under which business would profit, and, consequently, employ more people. Roosevelt implemented welfare programmes solely because he was forced to by a mass protest movement, involving unemployed organisations that mobilised hundreds of thousands of jobless workers in local and national protests. The ruling class had night terrors of revolution.

The harsh economic conditions of the Great Depression are now being replicated throughout the European Union, with cuts to wages, working hours, and unemployment rights, and the imposition of virulent anti-strike legislation. The only sectors that are relatively protected are army and police forces, i.e. those of the working class who are paid to suppress working class struggles.

A permanent feature of ruling class suppression of workers’ rights is the use of force. On the afternoon of March 6, 1930, 500,000 people in twenty-five American cities demonstrated for government assistance. The response by New York police was described by a reporter for the New York World: “Women struck in the face with blackjacks, boys beaten by gangs of seven and eight policemen, and an old man backed into a doorway and knocked down time after time … One of (the women) fought savagely howling curses … A detective ran up and while the policemen held her crashed his blackjack into her face three times before a man dragged her away”.

What changes? “One of Britain’s most prominent human rights lawyers has likened “heavy-handed” and politicised treatment of student protesters to the brutal victimisation of the miners during the strikes of the Thatcher era. Michael Mansfield QC said “outrageous” tactics were being employed to quash political protest and peaceful demonstrations in the UK, within politics, the police and the judiciary. Mansfield said the right to protest in Britain was under serious threat and that people who wanted to go on peaceful demonstrations now had to weigh up the risks they faced from heavy policing and draconian sentencing. “We praise those in the Arab spring and condemn the force used against them by their governments, yet allow our own rights to be eroded,” he said. “What is happening here? A direct attack is being made on the right of people to go out on the streets and show their solidarity and unity with others of the same opinion and hold peaceful protest” ( McVeigh and Townsend, 2011).

William Lovett spoke aptly of tyrants and their henchmen: “If our commercial, manufacturing, and middle classes of society were “well educated,” they would abjure the fraud and gambling transactions of the stock-exchange; there would be less commercial swindling – less lying, cheating, and over-reaching in trade; and bankruptcies and insolvencies would be seldom heard of. And if our own brethren were properly educated, the despots and tyrants of the earth would soon become rational members of society, for want of tools to work with; but as long as they can engage knaves and fools to carry their dishonest purposes into execution, they will continue to maintain their pernicious authority over all the rest of society. If men were morally educated, they would shrink with abhorrence from the mercenary occupation of a soldier, and spurn the livery and brutal instruments of his profession. They would greatly question the honour of being enlisted in a service in which they would be compelled to fight against liberty abroad and the rights of their brethren at home” … “If our countrymen were properly instructed, all attempts to establish a new standing army of policemen would have been fruitless. They would have inquired the necessity for those blue-coated auxiliaries of oppression – this new amalgamation of watch, spy, and bludgeon-men – this new concentration of force in the hands of an exclusively-elected and irresponsible power; and finding them intended to check the advancement of liberty, and perpetuate the reign of wrong, they would indignantly refuse to become such degrading instruments of injustice, and the fingers of scorn and derision would be pointed against their badge, livery, and calling” (William Lovett, 1840).

The more the working class appear tempted by revolutionary principles, the more necessary is to curtail that temptation through terror.

How can state-sponsored exploitation of workers be opposed?

* Establish the Unemployed and Exploited Workers Union (UEWU), with local branches in every town and city.

* Organise local and national demonstrations against zero hours contracts.

* Place posters in every town and city which name companies that use zero hours contracts.

* Institute social media campaigns against companies that use zero hours contracts.

* Demand a bill of rights for all workers to ensure their dignity and defend them against bullying.

* Demand the government guarantees a job of 8 hours a day for all at a living wage.

* Exploited of the World, Unite! March under the flag of human liberty!


References:, August 1, 2013 Anger at Amazon Working Conditions

DimonC (2013) The Commodity of Care

Ho Home Office papers

House of Commons Journal, May 1, 1788

Lovett L, Chartism: a new organization of the people, p. 58, 1840.

McVeigh T, Townsend M (2011) Michael Mansfield Condemns Police Brutality at Student Demo The Observer 6.8

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