The latest debate on zero hours contracts seems to be taking place with little or no trade union input. Instead, owners of small businesses are invited by various different media to speak up for such contracts. One such “entrepreneur” is quoted in the Guardian (letters, 6th August 2013) saying that “we can employ people on fixed hours contracts when you, the consumer, are prepared to pay them to sit at home”. So the blame for the use of archaic employment practices lays with us the consumer.
Frustratingly, with no union view sought, no one seems prepared to challenge this view. Instead sympathy goes to the struggling business owners doing their utmost to meet our needs as consumers while the Institute of Directors claims that without zero hours contracts the UK economy would have “gone the same way as southern Europe”.
But let’s be frank. Any business that relies on zero hours contracts, whether in the private or public sectors, is a business that has an unfair competitive advantage over those not resorting to such tactics. They have an unfair advantage either because using zero hours contracts is the only way they can make money, in which case are they really the type of business our economy needs, or they are making unfair and excessive profits compared to others.
While it is tempting to see all business owners as money grabbing, unscrupulous profiteers the likelihood is that many are simply masking their lack of entrepreneurial skill by exploiting workers, shifting the blame on to consumers and as a consequence undermining companies with a stronger vision who do wish to compete through long term sustainable policies based on using skills to be better not cheaper.
We therefore need to shift this debate away from the Institute of Directors and the individual small business whose owners may genuinely believe they have no choice but to use such contracts. No doubt these are the same people who predicted the collapse of our economy when the minimum wage was introduced and for whom the concept of a living wage is as alien as the idea that work should allow people to develop their skills and contribute meaningfully to society.
We need to do this because the zero hours contract issue is part of a much wider debate that touches on all of the issues looked at by unions 21 through the fair work commission. Zero hours contracts should be outlawed, but not just because they exploit individual workers, but because they are part of a series of measures that help prop up failing businesses that otherwise would not be able to compete with those businesses that do invest in decent employment conditions, skills and maybe even trade union recognition.
In the 1970s and 80s the Tory’s made much of Labours attempts during the 1974-79 period to prop up “failing” businesses by nationalising them. So why should today’s workers artificially prop up failing businesses today by accepting a form of exploitation that many of our international competitors in Europe avoid.
We also need to start challenging with some vigour the idea that consumers want something different to workers and therefore demand zero contract hours as a means of achieving the aim of goods and services at the lowest possible cost. Instead we need to make the argument that not only do consumers and workers have identical interests they are in fact the same people!
And we need to challenge the Institute of Directors and its view that a de-regulated, low wage, low skill economy is the only way to compete internationally.
Information about our fringe meeting on zero hours contracts at Labour Party Conference can be found here.