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Zero hours: full time work without a full time job

The strike over the use of zero hours and agency labour at the Hovis factory in Wigan has drawn national attention thanks to growing concern about zero hours contracts. These are contracts which do not guarantee any hours of work but instead ask for labour to be supplied as and when needed. The number of people on zero hours contracts has doubled in recent years and their abuse has been well documented.

After the Guardian reported on the strike, the company agreed to take the 28 workers on zero hours contracts into their direct employment, giving them the same rate of pay and job security as other workers. So as the strike enters its second week, the lack of a resolution might seem puzzling.

But as Hovis workers told me on the picket line last week, this is a strike that was never just about zero hours contracts. Many of Hovis’s current employees started on zero hours contracts in the bakery over 20 years ago and were happy to do so. But over the years their use has changed, as one worker said to me, “from use to abuse”. Where they used to be a trial for new employees they have become a permanent fixture in the workplace. Moreover, as another worker put it, those on zero hours contracts have ‘full time work but not a full time job’. Not only do they lose the pension rights, holiday entitlement and sick pay that go with a permanent contract, but they are also prime targets for pay cuts. Many of the people recently affected at Hovis were adults with family commitments who simply couldn’t afford to lose a third of their pay packet.

Despite the company backing down over the use of zero hours labour at the site, there is as yet no agreement on the use of agency labour. This is partly because it could simply amount to more workers on zero hours contracts supplied through a third party. But more importantly, the workers at Hovis see clearly that zero hours contracts are only one symptom of the growing casualisation of the workforce.

Britain has one of the most deregulated labour markets in Europe. A complex legal system allows companies to draw distinctions between workers and employees, leaving people working alongside one another, doing the same job but with different pay, job security and rights. The Hovis workers rightly reject this two-tier workforce preferring instead to press for equal treatment and an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. There is a strong history of solidarity at the bakery with workers recently opting to take across-the-board cuts to hours rather than lose jobs.

This is not unique. The problems the Hovis workers are confronting are replicated in workplaces across Britain. The number of people forced to accept temporary jobs has doubled since 2005 and created an increasingly vulnerable British workforce, existing from week to week. It was this that prompted Ed Miliband to tell the TUC conference this week that “all of the risks in the economy which we used to believe should be fairly shared between employers and working people are now placed on the individual worker alone. That’s why the worst of these practices owe more to the Victorian era than they do to the kind of workplace we should have in the 21st century.”

A commitment to ban exploitative zero hours contracts which ask workers to work exclusively for one business, stay on call without pay and work regular hours without regular contracts is an important first step towards this vision of better business. But the lesson from the strike at the Hovis factory in Wigan is that clamping down on zero hours contracts is only one part of a more significant change that needs to take place in workplaces across the country.  Companies need to take seriously their ethical responsibility to provide their workers with the security and pay they need. Zero hours contracts are one part of this much bigger problem in the UK – the casualisation of the labour force – which blights so many families’ lives and urgently needs resolving.