With the inevitability of a rising tide the gradual encroachment on employee rights continues unabated in this corporatised world of ours. Not content with the weakened state of the union movement and employee rights to collective bargaining, employers have teamed the consumer society with chronic casual/part time employment.
Zero-hour contracts are the latest manifestation of this ongoing battle between capital and labour; they are specifically aimed at casual employees. In Great Britain there are reportedly now around a million zero-hour casuals. To quote Wikipedia:
A zero-hour contract is a contract of employment that contains provisions which create an ‘on call’ arrangement between employer and employee. It does not oblige the employer to provide work for the employee, nor does it oblige the employee to accept the work offered. The employee agrees to be available for work as and when required, so that no particular number of hours or times of work are specified. The employee is expected to be on call and receives compensation only for hours worked.
Zero-hour contracts may be ideal for some people such as retirees and students who want occasional earnings and are able to be entirely flexible about when they work, but people in the general working population, including those with mortgages and responsibility for supporting a family, run the risk of unpredictable hours and earnings. The possibility of the use of such contracts by management as a tool to reward or reprimand employees for any reason or no reason raises issues about how workers can adequately assert their employment rights or maintain decent employment relations
There is alarm on the Left of politics that zero-hour contracts will find their way into the Australian workforce even though casuals and part timers are presently guaranteed rights under current workplace relations legislation. That alarm is not without some justification given that if all indicators are accurate, Tony Abbott's Coalition will take government on September 7. If ever there was an ideological foundation stone for right wing political parties it is industrial relations and the desire both to limit union power and increase employer "flexibility" over its workforce. All those hidden agendas Labor has been accusing the LNP of should include zero-hour contracts and yet strangely there has barely been a word written about it. Post September 7 the Australian workforce could be in for a very unpleasant surprise. Watch this space.
Final words of warning should come from someone who has experienced the employer - employee tug o' war up close and personal over many years, and who has had the opportunity to witness the effects of zero-hour contracts. This article appeared in the Guardian last month. The author is 90 year old Harry Leslie Smith.
Zero-hours contracts remind me of the great depression ...
Some, I suppose, might call the zero-hours contract natural progress, the evolutionary step from a sea of unionism to the beach head of capitalistic corporatism, but I would prefer to call it economic nostalgia by the ruling classes. You see, I've done my share of labour; I have worn both the worker's cap and the manager's suit and I have known both hunger and plenty. Being 90, I witnessed and experienced the great depression where there were no work contracts and employers could hire or fire workers at their leisure. The dock workers of our ports and the labourers who tilled our fields, mended our roads or built our skylines had little protection from employment abuse because jobs were scarce and hunger was abundant.
As a boy, I remember watching beaten men beg for work at the bolted gates of a local mill while behind bars of iron, a harried manager picked from an uneven line the lucky few who'd earn a bit of dosh while working like a horse in a shuck. The men who were chosen were those who knew that the price for survival was to keep schtum over the injustices done to them. As for the others, well they were like all of the other unfortunates in Britain – their lives, like rubbish bins, were left on the curb side.
This is why I am disturbed by zero-hours contracts because so much talent and ability in today's generation is being jeopardised by an authoritarian business dogma dictated by large corporations that demand sacrifice from their employees, handouts from the government and excessive profits for their stakeholders. Ultimately, this myopic greed by business, which is encouraged by our government, cannot be sustained or civilisation as we know it will rot like the fruit that falls on to the ground in late September.
However, the problem is more than the avarice that has metastasised like a malignant cancer in our business leaders – it is also our own indifference to the injustices done to our society. Sure, many people are outraged by zero-hours contracts. Yet once the online comment sections of our newspapers are closed for discussion and this news cycle ends, today's dailies will wrap tonight's fish. Morning will come and there will be a new, fresh scandal or outrage to sting us, irritate us or frighten us and then it will disappear like smoke rings from our consciousness.
As a species we are unique because we can either learn from or choose to forget unpleasant experiences. If we ignore the root cause of zero-hours contracts then like the inhabitants of ancient Pompeii this country shall be buried not under a mountain of molten lava but under a wave of corporate greed.
In Britain, we have to start asking the tough questions not only to our leaders but also to ourselves. Left, right or centre, everyone has to pause and think about what type of country they want. We have to take some responsibility for our destiny and use our influence, be it great or small, to change this nation for the better.
Zero-hours contracts should be abolished and each and every MP should be required to sign a declaration to their constituents as to where they stand on the matter. There should be open and honest debates about the NHS and its future. We should discuss poverty, education, social mobility and the benefits of wealth used for both individual enhancement and societal change. It's time the people of this country start to realise life isn't a reality TV show and what really matters is what's happening on your street, in your riding, in your county and around your country.
Those generations – X, Y, Z and the millennials – who wait in the wings wondering if their elders can do any more damage to their futures, it's time for you to take the ear-pods out and demand your voice be heard. If your generation doesn't have the gumption to demand more than a pay-day loan life from yourselves, your leaders, your political parties, the banks, you will be forever an indentured servant to a system that has been bent out of shape.
It is time you demanded your birthright, which is the modern welfare state where everyone's life is afforded protection and dignity. Don't tell me it can't be done because I was there in 1945 when a revolution washed over Britain and for the first time in our nation's history, people were judged by their character and not by their class, their region or their accent.